Iris Berent
Iris Berent, Professor of Psychology and Linguistics

by Julia Renner, Environmental Science, 2017

Research on spoken languages has shown that they rely on the human brain’s ability to unconsciously encode patterns in speech in the form of abstract rules—for instance, upon hearing the words “bagogo” and “fatiti,” people can comprehend the ABB pattern and recognize it in other meaningless sounds like “malulu.” Now, Northeastern University professor Iris Berent has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate whether similar rules operate in American Sign Language (ASL).

Rules play a critical role in languages: comprehension of abstract rules lets people generate new words and sentences, allowing language to evolve. The study of sign languages allows researchers to examine whether the capacity to learn rules is unique to spoken languages, or whether it is inherent to the language system in general. Prior work by Berent and Northeastern student Amanda Dupuis has shown that signed languages display the same generative patterns as spoken languages—in other words, “rules rule” in both signed and spoken language. This runs counter to the common assumption that since signs often resemble the words they convey—for instance, the shape of objects—signed languages are merely a form of mimicry, and do not rely on abstract rules the way spoken languages do. “Our research turns this misconception on its head,” says Berent.

This idea has significant implications for the understanding of the neurological basis of language: the same brain mechanisms may be responsible for dealing with the structure of both spoken and signed languages. In addition, this suggests that sign languages are not merely manual mimicry of spoken language; rather, they operate by similar abstract rules. “Language structure seems to be a product of an abstract language system, not the auditory system,” Professor Berent explains. “Languages are more similar to each other than what might initially appear.” Berent will explore this concept using Near Infrared Spectroscopy to study the brains of infants, and through behavioral research with both signing and nonsigning adults. In the future, she hopes to study the genetic and neurological mechanisms that build structures across modalities (speech and signed gestures).

Berent’s lab encourages signers to participate in their experiments, and offers interested students the chance to study the structure of sign languages.