New Worlds: The tone of sign language

Researchers found that each sign language has its own “playback.”

Elderly couple (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Elderly couple (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Intonation is an inseparable part of all spoken languages. But according to new research at the University of Haifa, users of sign language also have their own unique intonation, that often crosses languages and cultures.
“It appears that intonation is a vital element in all human languages,” said Prof. Wendy Sandler, the head of the Sign Language Research Laboratory, who led the research.
We all know that French, Italian, Spanish and a whole list of languages have a different “tune” even when we don’t understand a word. Listening to them, we can pick out what is a question, an answer or a command. Even babies can differentiate between languages thanks to the intonation – speed of speech and the ups and downs of the voice that are one of the most essential elements in speech.
Sandler, working with doctoral student Svetlana Dachkovsky and Christina Healy, decided to look into sign language intonation. They asked speakers of American and Israeli sign language, which are very different historically and culturally, to sign a series of sentences, including answers to yes/no questions, commands, queries and conditional sentences. The researchers found that each sign language has its own “playback,” together with facial expressions and regular facial and head movements, and that they change according to the aim of the sentence.
They discovered that in some cases, the intonation of Israeli and American sign languages are similar, as in yes/no questions. For example, when both sign languages are used for questions, the eyebrows and eyelids are raised and the head is moved forward as during spoken language. But in other types of speech, the intonation is completely different, Sandler said.
“There are various communities around the world in which sign language is still growing and developing in front of our eyes. Our understanding that [they are] a human language like any other turns [sign languages] into natural labs for researching the development of human language.
Our understanding of how grammar, intonation and other factors developed can illuminate questions about the essence of human cognition in general,” she concluded.
Neuroscience Prize
Senior administrators and scientists at universities, hospitals, medical schools and research institutes are invited to nominate young Israeli researchers who have made major contributions to neuroscience for the $100,000 Adelis Prize. The Adelis Foundation, which has made grants for everything from medical clowns to pre-army intelligence studies, invites nominations to recognize outstanding achievement in advancing knowledge and understanding of the human brain and nervous system. The research should be expected over time to promote the development of diagnostics and treatment for mental and neurobiological diseases.
The prize is intended for young Israeli researchers with up to eight years of research experience following their doctorate; preference will be given to applicants who work in Israel or are in the process of returning.
Recipients will be selected by a committee of leading neuroscientists and public representatives.
Video Games Streamline Education Research
A Washington State University academic has figured out a dramatically easier and more cost-effective way to do research on science curriculums in the classroom – and it could include playing video games. Called “computational modeling,” it involves a computer “learning” student behavior and then “thinking” as students would.
Prof. Richard Lamb, who teaches science education, said the process could “revolutionize” the way educational research is done. His research, recently published in the Computers & Education journal, explains how computers examine student responses to science tasks – such as comparing different volumes of liquid – and thereafter mimic the way students think.
“In the current model of research, we go into a classroom and spend months observing, giving tests and trying to see if changes to a specific model work and how to best implement them,” Lamb said. “It will still be necessary for researchers to go into the classroom; that never goes away. This just gives us more flexibility.”
An artificial neural network is basically artificial intelligence that simulates the human brain.
Students were given tasks to complete in an electronic game that were scientific in nature and required the students to make a choice. The researchers used statistical techniques to track everything and assign each task as a success or failure. The computer is able to see what constitutes success, as well as how students approach science, Lamb said.
Most entertainment video games have the same characteristics as educational video games, Lamb noted.
“So long as it asks a singular task of the students, any game would be suitable. The computer is learning to solve novel or new problems, which means we can test different educational interventions before ever getting to a classroom,” he said.
“Now we can run multiple interventions, choose the one that looks like it will work the best and then just test that one. For me to get 100,000 students, teachers to administer tests, professors doing research and all the rest, we could easily look at about $3.5 million,” Lamb said. “We can now get those 100,000 students for the cost of running software off a computer.”