Science Proves (Again) that Sign Language Boosts Mental Rotation Skills


One of the most read articles in Unusualverse about the benefits of Sign Language was published in 2019 (here) and showed that Sign Language improves mental rotation skills. Now science shows that the greater the fluency in Sign Language, the greater the mental rotation skills.

What Is New In This Research?

We knew that mental rotation skills are not related to deafness, i.e. having deafness does not improve mental rotation ability, but is a direct benefit of Sign Language, and previous research had shown that Sign Language users had greater mental rotation ability than non-users.

Now this study compares mental rotation ability among four groups of people aged between 19 and 53 years:

  • 18 deaf people with fluent Sign Language competence.
  • 16 hearing people with fluent Sign Language competence.
  • 16 hearing people with Sign Language competence but low fluency.
  • 15 hearing people with no Sign Language competence.

As we can see, they now study, in addition to deaf people, three groups of hearing people: fluent signers, non-fluent signers and non-signers. Of course it was clear to the researchers that it is very difficult to establish a precise boundary between what is considered a fluent and a non-fluent signer. With the term "fluency" they intended to convey the holistic amount of linguistic knowledge, experience and facility in understanding and using Sign Language.

To identify whether a person was fluent in Sign Language or not, they used the "American Sign Language Comprehension Test" (ASL-CT) and were classified as non-fluent signers if they scored below 70%. Although it is a comprehension test, previous research found a relationship between this comprehension test and ASL learners, hearing native signers and deaf native signers.

Example of figures to measure mental rotation ability: (A) the same object with 100° of rotation in the image plane. (B) the same object with 100° of rotation on the vertical axis. (C) two different objects (mirrored) rotated 100° in the image plane. (D) two different objects (mirrored) rotated 100° on the vertical axis

What Mental Rotation Test Did They Do?

The researchers conducted up to 280 mental rotation trials using figures like the ones in the image above, which have been in use since the 1970s.

The figures were presented for 5 seconds and the participants had 3 seconds to answer whether it was the same figure or different ones.

During the trials, participants wore an electroencephalogram (EEG) corpus to measure their brain response and find differences in patterns between each group of participants.

EEG cap (the one used by the researchers may differ from this one)

Yes, Sign Language Boosts Mental Rotation Capacity

The test results lead to the conclusion that fluent signers outperformed non-fluent signers and non-signers, so that the greater the Sign Language proficiency, the greater the mental rotation ability.

Interestingly, the ability was similar in deaf fluent signers and hearing fluent signers, but the researchers found different patterns in brain activity.

What now?

Mental rotation skills are relevant for activities such as solving a Rubik's cube, finding one's way around a map, spatial control in some sports or in professions such as architecture.

But in addition, other research found that high school students with higher spatial skills went into STEM jobs more than 10 years later (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). So perhaps it would not be a bad idea to introduce Sign Language learning in these university careers, it could help them to improve their academic and professional outcomes.

On the other hand, it is interesting to know that the benefits of Sign Language are not limited to learning it, but the more it is learned and more proficient it is, the greater the benefit, which could be an incentive for sign language students.

We leave you with a short test of your mental rotation skills.

Which of the figures below is the same as the figure above but rotated? The correct answer is A. If you have rotated this text in order to be able to read it, you need to keep improving your mental rotation skills ;)


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