Which is more efficient: talking or signing?

Signing hands in black and white

Until the 1960s, this question was very hard to answer. Video recording equipment was not advanced enough for studying Sign. The question would not have even been considered till recently. Signing was seen as a necessary evil rather than a language with unique capabilities.

Us non-signers often imagine Sign to be more cumbersome than it actually is. For example, lay people often believe that the Deaf cannot communicate in the dark when in fact Deaf people can hold each other’s hands and sign that way.

Professor Emerita - Ursula Bellugi
Professor Emerita – Ursula Bellugi

In 1972, an experiment was conducted which settled the question. Sign turns out to be slightly more efficient than English.

The experiment was led by Ursula Bellugi, Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. She is regarded as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language (ASL).

She used the speaking children of Deaf parents who were fluent in English and ASL. She compared the speed at which stories were signed and spoken.

On average, the children communicated at the rate of 4.7 words and 2.3 signs per second. Signing and speaking the same story took almost exactly the same time. However, only 122 signs were used compared to 210 words, less than 60% as many.

Was this because signs contain more information to compensate, or is signing an inefficient way of communicating because it leaves out vital information?

The next stage in the experiment resolved this. A bilingual child translated a story from English to ASL. Another bilingual child who did not hear the original story observed the signs and translated them into English. The resulting translation was almost identical to the original, no information was lost even if it had not been signed.

The neuroscientists broke the signed story into propositions that were the signed equivalents of verbs and nouns. They worked out that the spoken stories contained 1.3 propositions per second compared to 1.5 per second for the signed stories.

This means that Sign is 15% more efficient than English at conveying information. Why is this?

Put simply, Sign is a four dimensional language while Speech is one dimensional.

When we speak, the only dimension we use is time. Signers use time, but they also use width, length and breadth to convey meaning.

Incidentally, writing is two dimensional, using time and space. Sometimes it uses three dimensions if large letters are used for emphasis.

Signers are able to form more than one sign in parallel in a way speakers cannot.

Unfortunately, Sign’s capabilities were not realised until the mid 18th century among the Deaf communities in cities like Paris and unusual professions like monks and mill workers. For 130 years the use of Sign flourished until 1880 when disaster struck.

Until the 1960s, Sign almost vanished from classrooms and it was largely down to one man: Alexander Graham Bell.



“Alexander Graham Bell Hated Deaf People” by Weird History – Ranker