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The Cognitive Neuroscientist Who Helped Unravel the Mysteries of Language

While working at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., the late cognitive neuroscientist Ursula Bellugi discovered that, much like spoken language, sign language was made up of specific building blocks whose assembly followed strict rules. Her subsequent discoveries about the complexities of sign language led to both linguistic breakthroughs and changes in the way deaf people felt about signing. Bellugi demonstrated that sign language is as rich and complex as any spoken language. Her work deepened our understanding of what it means to communicate as humans.


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Katie Hafner: I’m Katie Hafner, and this is Lost Women of Science: From Our Inbox, a series of mini-episodes featuring women in science who came to us from you, our listeners. On today’s episode, we hear from Nancy Frishberg about Ursula Bellugi, a cognitive scientist who worked on understanding how language is rooted in our brains. Producer Samia Bouzid brings us her story.

Samia Bouzid: In the mid-1900s, some of the biggest questions about the mind centered on language: how we learn it, how we produce it, and how language is tied to being human. Scientists wondered whether it was tied to our intelligence, our anatomy, the environment we grew up in, or something else. And it was sort of a wild time.

Scientist: Hello. 

Samia Bouzid: Researchers were trying to teach language to chimps and dolphins, looking for clues in other animals. 

Scientist: A-E-I-O

Samia Bouzid: Meanwhile, in the 1960s and ’70s, a small collection of scientists grew interested in something that many people didn’t consider language at all: signing. 

At this point in time, many people considered sign language a kind of pantomiming. The kind of thing you do when you need to get around a language barrier. It was seen as something that could get a simple message across, like “Are you okay?” or “Go that way.” Not enough to discuss complex topics, like a political race, or dreams for the future, or a childhood memory of chasing fireflies with grandma.

But that was all about to change, in large part thanks to the cognitive scientist, Ursula Bellugi.

Nancy Frishberg: She and her lab were able to say with confidence that sign languages are real languages.

Samia Bouzid: And in doing so, she not only changed the thinking around sign language. She let us in on some of the inner workings of the human mind.

Ursula Bellugi was born Ursula Herzberger in Jena, Germany, in 1931. Three years later, her family fled the Nazis and found refuge in Rochester, New York. Ursula grew up in an intellectual environment. Her dad was a physicist and a mathematician– a friend of Albert Einstein’s– and her mom was an artist. In 1952, Ursula graduated with a degree in psychology from Antioch University, in Ohio.

The following year, like so many women of that era, she got married — to the Italian conductor Piero Bellugi — and had two boys. But the marriage didn’t last long, and by 1959, Ursula was a single parent, raising two young children. And that could have been the end of it– a life swallowed up by Little League, chicken pox, and multiplication tables. But that’s not who Ursula Bellugi was. 

In the midst of all this, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and started working on a doctorate in education at Harvard. And you couldn’t miss her on campus! She’d ride in by bike, both kids behind her. 

While she was there, she worked on understanding how young children learn their first language. Basically, how they go from spitting out single words to crafting simple phrases and sentences. Along the way, she met a linguist named Edward Klima. He became her partner in science, and before long, also her partner in life. 

In 1968, doctorate in hand, Ursula moved across the country with her family and took a job at the Salk Institute in California. 

The Salk Institute was new back then. Its founder, Jonas Salk, had developed the polio vaccine in the 1950s. And as that vaccine was saving thousands of lives, he founded this institute with a vision: It was a place for researchers to ask daring questions and explore fundamental aspects of life. 

And Ursula had questions. Through her work at Harvard, she had become fixated on the question of how we learn language. And since then, she’d grown especially interested in sign language. She thought that studying a language that’s so different from spoken language could help clarify what about language is fundamental to us as humans

Her idea was basically: Peel back all the layers that are tied to the specific ways language is made, and see what’s left. And with any luck, pinpointing the fundamental features of language could be the first step to understanding how our language skills are tied to our biology. 

On the surface, sign language is vastly different from spoken language. Which is why many people at the time didn’t really consider it a language in its own right– at least not on the same level as spoken language.

Nancy Frishberg: I think it’s not obvious to the general public because we all know how to play charades and we think it’s the same thing. 

Samia Bouzid: Nancy Frishberg was a grad student in Ursula’s lab in those early years at Salk, and the two of them were lifelong friends. Nancy says a big part of the problem was that not a lot of hearing people ever saw what sign language actually looked like when it was used among fluent signers.

Nancy Frishberg: Deaf people are very adept at communicating with hearing people through gesture. However, when they do it, it’s like talking a foreign language, you know? They speak more slowly, and use the easiest signs that everybody would know, and so on. 

Samia Bouzid: But when they’re among themselves…

Nancy Frishberg:  … deaf people talking to one another look completely different.

Samia Bouzid: But it wasn’t just hearing people who thought sign language was not a language. Nancy remembers even many deaf people didn’t recognize the complexity of how they communicated. 

Nancy Frishberg: There was all this shame around signing when I first started out. Shame and hiding it, and, well, “This isn’t really good language.” “This is just how we talk to each other.” 

Samia Bouzid: But Ursula thought sign language might hold some important clues to the answers she was looking for. So, at Salk, Ursula decided to focus on deciphering how the deaf learned to sign. But… she didn’t quite know where to begin. By one account, she started by looking up “deaf” in the yellow pages and finding a group of mothers with deaf children. 

But before she could understand how deaf children learned sign language, she needed to break down sign language down into its basic parts. That would let her see how it compared to spoken language, and how those parts came together as deaf children learned to sign.

Linguists knew how to do this with spoken language. They thought of spoken words as having two basic parts, called phonemes and morphemes.

Phonemes are the sonic building blocks that make up words. Basically, the consonants and vowels that we string together to make different words. So the word “cat” has three phonemes, the “k,” the “aa,” and the “t.”

Meanwhile, morphemes are chunks of meaning. So, in English, for example, the word “dancing” has two morphemes: the root word “dance,” and the ending “ing,” which tells you that the action is ongoing. 

And Ursula found that signs could be broken down in a similar way. Of course sign languages aren’t made up of consonants and vowels, but each sign is made up of smaller building blocks.

Nancy Frishberg: So you can take the signs apart. You can consider the separate parts, hand shapes, locations, movements, orientation of the hands, where the hands contact each other as the building blocks. 

Samia Bouzid: For example, let’s go back to the word ‘dancing’. There’s no perfect parallel for that in American sign language, but someone who uses ASL could make the sign for a verb like dance and then add a rolling motion with their hand to show that this action is happening continuously. In this case, the meaning comes from putting together two building blocks: the shape of the hand and the motion. 

So in the 1970s, Ursula and her colleagues worked together with deaf people whose native language was American sign language to identify patterns like this. Then they took things a step further. 

Nancy Frishberg: She did work on Chinese sign language where you can see that there are hand shapes or movement types that occur in one that don’t occur in the other. And those fine-level details, I think, were not obvious to, either the amateur or the general public.

Samia Bouzid: But Ursula was all about the fine-level details, and what they showed super clearly was that each sign language was made up of specific building blocks that were assembled following strict rules, much like in spoken language. 

For instance, in any spoken language, you can’t just combine consonants and vowels in any old way. Take a made-up word like “safatee.” It could be a real word, right? It sounds fine. But compare that with, say “sfozig.” Something sounds off — because English just doesn’t combine phonemes that way.

And similar rules apply to sign languages. People who are native in one sign language even have a kind of “accent” when they sign in a different language. 

So, by the end of all this, Ursula and her team found that the parallels between spoken and signed language were pretty astounding. And there was no denying that sign language was every bit as complex as spoken language.

This wasn’t just an academic breakthrough. It was a big social breakthrough too. Over just one generation, Nancy told me, she saw a lot of the shame around American Sign Language evaporate from that community. Thanks in large part, she says, to Ursula Bellugi.

Nancy Frishberg: I think what she turned over to the community of ASL signers is, of course, it’s a language. This is exactly good language, it’s not English, but it’s beautiful example of what a language can do in a different modality.

Samia Bouzid: Ursula’s work did resonate in the academic community too. Her team’s discoveries seemed to imply that some aspect of language was fundamentally human since all language seems to have some basic shared qualities, no matter how you produce it. 

Which was intriguing… and then Ursula decided to take things even further. 

Nancy Frishberg: She took up the theme of the biological foundations of human language, which was barely touched on prior to her work.

Samia Bouzid: In other words, she wanted to explore how this was all playing out in the brain. 

At first, it seemed logical that sign language and spoken language would be processed by different parts of the brain. Because if you’re a brain, extracting meaning from hand shapes moving around is a pretty different problem compared to parsing a stream of sounds. So on some level, it makes sense that they’d happen in different brain regions.

At this point, in the 1980s, scientists knew that language was supported by the brain’s left hemisphere, in regions that manage our auditory processing and our mouth movements. So, they hypothesized that sign language would mostly use the right side of the brain. That’s the side that generally deals with processing visual-spatial information, like judging distances and facial expressions. 

Ursula and her colleagues spent two decades studying sign language users with brain damage, and what they found totally surprised them. 

Those with brain damage in the right hemisphere generally had no problems using or understanding sign language. But patients who had damage to their left hemisphere, in the areas associated with spoken language, often struggled to string together a sentence or understand signs. 

To the surprise of Ursula and her colleagues, all evidence suggested that sign language sets up shop in the left hemisphere… in the same part of the brain as speech

And they figured this all out based on people’s behavior — without even imaging the brain. 

Nancy Frishberg: Keep in mind, there was no neurobiology when she was a student or when she was beginning her lab. She kind of, you know, embraced that as it came to be in the 80s and 90s.

Samia Bouzid: And by the 1990s, neuroimaging research had confirmed what they suspected. 

All of this suggested–although this last point is still debated–that our language abilities are somehow anchored to a part of the brain that’s wired for language. And that that part of the brain will produce language in whatever form it can. 

Ursula Bellugi: It’s really uncovering the human capacity for creating linguistic systems… 

Samia Bouzid: Here’s Ursula herself reflecting on this discovery in a 2016 interview.

Ursula Bellugi: …and this discovery was just gorgeous, and beautiful, and fascinating.

Samia Bouzid: Of course there were still plenty of open questions, but decades after Ursula had first set out to understand how language was tied to the brain, the picture was starting to come together.

Throughout her career, Ursula never stopped studying sign language. But later on, she branched out into other areas too. Most importantly, she became a leading expert on a developmental disorder known as Williams Syndrome, a disorder that affects people’s cognitive abilities but mainly leaves their social skills intact. 

And as far as Nancy could tell, Ursula could have just kept going and going. She was just so passionate about understanding how our brain works and how it underlies our most basic social and cognitive abilities.

Nancy Frishberg: When she turned 80 — that must have been 2011 — I got in touch with her and said, “Ursula, what are you gonna do about your papers?”

Samia Bouzid: Nancy was thinking perhaps it was time to donate some papers to an archive or a library. But Ursula had other ideas.

Nancy Frishberg: She said, “Sh, sh. Don’t say anything because I don’t want my funding agencies to get any hint that I’m thinking about retiring.” She just turned 80, but she was rushing. She had so much work to do.

Samia Bouzid: Ursula didn’t retire until 2018, when she was 87 years old. It was just four years before she died. And after she was gone, she left behind generations of researchers and collaborators who remember her fondly for all the different ways she touched their lives and the world of science. 

In an interview near the end of her life, Ursula recalled a letter she’d gotten from the mother of one of the children she worked with while studying Williams Syndrome. 

Ursula Bellugi: … She wrote me a letter saying, “Thank you for your relentless curiosity about our children.”

Samia Bouzid: For Nancy, that relentless curiosity was what defined Ursula Bellugi. It was the thread that ran through all her different work she did.

For Nancy, what stands out is Ursula’s endless curiosity and her unrelenting drive to learn new things.

Nancy Frishberg: So that’s what I’m hoping people will appreciate is how diligently she asked great questions and how persistent she was about pursuing those questions and inviting other people in to help her understand what those questions might mean and how to answer them.

Katie Hafner: And that’s Lost Women of Science: From Our Inbox. Thanks to Nancy Frishberg for writing to us about Ursula Bellugi in the first place. This episode was produced and sound-designed by Samia Bouzid, with help from Dominique Janee. Thanks to Robbin Battison for the recordings of Ursula’s voice that you heard in this episode.

Our executive producers are Amy Scharf and myself, Katie Hafner. Lizzy Younan composes our music. We get our funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Anne Wojcicki Foundation. PRX distributes us and our publishing partner is Scientific American.

Here at Lost Women of Science, it is our goal to rescue female scientists from the jaws of obscurity, but we need your help! If you know of a female scientist who’s been lost to history, let us know! You can go to our website to send us an email, at lostwomenofscience.org. You’ll also find the phone number to our tip line. We love getting calls to the tip line.

Thanks for listening!

 Further Reading:

The signs of language by Edward S. Klima, Ursula Bellugi, Harvard University Press, 1979.

The neurobiology of sign language and its implications for the neural basis of language, by Gregory Hickok, Ursul Bellugi, Edward S. Klima, Nature, July 1996.

What the hands reveal about the brain by Howard Poizner, MIT Press 1987.

Sign language in the brain by Ursula Bellugi, Scientific American, June 2001. 

What’s right about the neural organization of sign language? A perspective on recent neuroimaging results by Ursula Bellugi, Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 2, No. 12, December 1998, Elsevier Science.

Silence, Signs, and Wonder: What is it about our brains that gives us the capacity for language? by Peter Radetsky, Discover, Aug 1, 1994.


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