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Analysis of the visual spatiotemporal properties of American Sign Language


Careful measurements of the temporal dynamics of speech have provided important insights into phonetic properties of spoken languages, which are important for understanding auditory perception. By contrast, analytic quantification of the visual properties of signed languages is still largely uncharted. Exposure to sign language is a unique experience that could shape and modify low-level visual processing for those who use it regularly (i.e., what we refer to as the Enhanced Exposure Hypothesis). The purpose of the current study was to characterize the visual spatiotemporal properties of American Sign Language (ASL) so that future studies can test the enhanced exposure hypothesis in signers, with the prediction that altered vision should be observed within, more so than outside, the range of properties found in ASL. Using an ultrasonic motion tracking system, we recorded the hand position in 3-dimensional space over time during sign language production of signs, sentences, and narratives. From these data, we calculated several metrics: hand position and eccentricity in space and hand motion speed. For individual signs, we also measured total distance travelled by the dominant hand and total duration of each sign. These metrics were found to fall within a selective range, suggesting that exposure to signs is a specific and unique visual experience, which might alter visual perceptual abilities in signers for visual information within the experienced range, even for non-language stimuli.

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