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Do right-handed people understand sign language of left-handed individuals?

Posted May 16, 2017

People have all kinds of accents. Just because you think you understand English, it doesn‘t mean you will understand everyone. But how about people who communicate via sign language? Do they face this problem? A new research from the University of Birmingham investigated an interesting question – do right-handed people understand sign language of left-handed people?

Right-handed people take longer to comprehend what left-handed people are saying using sign language. Image credit: Jeremy Segrott (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia

This question might look stupid to some, but it really isn’t. You see, some of the signs require the use of both hands and people use their hands differently. If you’re right-handed chances are that your left hand is less coordinated and generally used less. So people who communicate using sign language usually use their dominant hand exclusively to show one-handed signs and lead with it two-handed signs. But does that affect the way they are understood by others?

It turns out, it does make a difference. Both left- and right-handed people easily understand signs of right-handed people. However, left-handed people understand left-handed speakers quicker. It means that talking to a left- handed person in sign language is actually more challenging for most people. Dr Robin Thompson, one of the authors of the study, said: “as left-handed signers are better at understanding fellow left-handers for two-handed signs, the findings suggest that how people produce their own signs plays a part in how quickly they can understand others’ signing”.

How scientists figured this out? They performed some experiments, involving 43 signers – group included both left- and right-handed individuals. Scientists showed participants a picture and then showed a sign. Then they asked participants if the sign and the image matched. The time it took them to respond is the variable scientists were going after. Results actually were not that surprising – they match what verbally speaking people do too.

In noisy environment people understand the words they are hearing partly by checking in with their own production system. This is called the motor theory of speech perception. So, people who communicate using signs language do struggle sometimes to understand other, because they speak a little bit differently.


Source: University of Birmingham

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