Signers quick to read body language

Deaf people who use sign language can recognize and interpret body language more readily than hearing non-signers, a new study shows.

The work suggests that deaf people may be especially adept at picking up on subtle visual traits in the actions of others, an ability that could be useful for some sensitive jobs, such as airport screening.

“There are a lot of anecdotes about deaf people being better able to pick up on body language, but this is the first evidence of that,” says David Corina, professor in the department of linguistics and Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.


Corina and graduate student Michael Grosvald, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, measured the response times of both deaf and hearing people to a series of video clips showing people making American Sign Language signs or “non-language” gestures, such as stroking the chin.

“We expected that deaf people would recognize sign language faster than hearing people, as the deaf people know and use sign language daily, but the real surprise was that deaf people also were about 100 milliseconds faster at recognizing non-language gestures than were hearing people,” Corina says.

Published in the journal Cognition, the work is important because it suggests that the human ability for communication is modifiable and is not limited to speech, Corina says.

Deaf people show that language can be expressed by the hands and be perceived through the visual system. When this happens, deaf signers get the added benefit of being able to recognize non-language actions better than hearing people who do not know a sign language, he explains. The study supports the idea that sign language is based on a modification of the system that all humans use to recognize gestures and body language, rather than working through a completely different system.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

Credit: UC Davis