The neural correlates of highly iconic structures and topographic discourse in French Sign Language as observed in six hearing native signers

Brain Lang. 2010 Sep;114(3):180-92. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2010.05.003. Epub 2010 Jun 9.


"Highly iconic" structures in Sign Language enable a narrator to act, switch characters, describe objects, or report actions in four-dimensions. This group of linguistic structures has no real spoken-language equivalent. Topographical descriptions are also achieved in a sign-language specific manner via the use of signing-space and spatial-classifier signs. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the neural correlates of topographic discourse and highly iconic structures in French Sign Language (LSF) in six hearing native signers, children of deaf adults (CODAs), and six LSF-naïve monolinguals. LSF materials consisted of videos of a lecture excerpt signed without spatially organized discourse or highly iconic structures (Lect LSF), a tale signed using highly iconic structures (Tale LSF), and a topographical description using a diagrammatic format and spatial-classifier signs (Topo LSF). We also presented texts in spoken French (Lect French, Tale French, Topo French) to all participants. With both languages, the Topo texts activated several different regions that are involved in mental navigation and spatial working memory. No specific correlate of LSF spatial discourse was evidenced. The same regions were more activated during Tale LSF than Lect LSF in CODAs, but not in monolinguals, in line with the presence of signing-space structure in both conditions. Motion processing areas and parts of the fusiform gyrus and precuneus were more active during Tale LSF in CODAs; no such effect was observed with French or in LSF-naïve monolinguals. These effects may be associated with perspective-taking and acting during personal transfers.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Female
  • France
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Persons With Hearing Impairments
  • Sign Language*