The signing brain. Classifier constructions in Polish Sign Language from a neurobiological perspective (176/UD/SKILLS).
Project Leader: Paweł Rutkowski, Phd
Section for Sign Linguistics, Head Faculty of Polish Studies University of Warsaw


In several countries including Poland natural sign languages were considered inadequate for education despite being massively used within Deaf communities. Instead, new sign-supported systems were created, based on the belief that spoken/written language is grammatically superior. One such system is SJM (/system językowo-migowy/) which preserves the grammatical and lexical structure of spoken Polish. Since 1960s, SJM has been extensively employed in schools and on TV. Nevertheless, the Deaf community of Poland avoids using SJM for everyday communication, its preferred language being PJM (/polski język migowy/), a natural language evolving spontaneously since 1800s. Importantly, PJM is structurally and grammatically independent of spoken Polish, e.g. it features classifier constructions, a grammatical phenomenon unattested in Polish. We used fMRI to investigate the neural substrates supporting the comprehension of SJM and PJM. Three different types of signed sentences (SJM and PJM with/without classifier constructions) were presented to deaf signers and hearing controls. In deaf signers, PJM with classifier constructions compared to either SJM or PJM without classifier constructions recruited the inferior parietal lobules bilaterally and right superior parietal lobule, supporting evidence for the special role of parietal lobes in classifier constructions. The reversed comparison revealed activation in the anterior temporal lobes, suggesting increased involvement of semantic processing in lexical sign comprehension. Finally, natural sign language (PJM) compared with manually-coded spoken Polish (SJM) engaged posterior left superior temporal gyrus (STG). We argue that activity in the left posterior STG can distinguish between natural sign languages and sign-supported systems based on spoken language.

Selected publications:

Jednoróg K., Bola Ł., Mostowski P., Szwed M., Boguszewski P., Marchewka A., Rutkowski P., Three-dimensional Grammar in the Brain: Dissociating the Neural Correlates of Natural Sign Language and Manually Coded Spoken Language (submitted)

Diffrences in activations between three types of signed sentences (SJM and PJM with/without classifier constructions)