Does using a visual language influence the way we think about the world?

Languages that are spoken or signed differ from each other in the way the properties of objects and events need to be expressed.

This need to pay attention to the way in which we express things in different languages can be seen in spoken languages. For example, in English the gender of nouns is not marked - nouns are not masculine, feminine or neuter. So in English a word such as “friend” can be used in quite a general way, whereas in Italian – which does mark the gender of nouns – the speaker needs to pay attention to whether the friend is male or female, and this will change the form of the word for friend in Italian. Because every noun in Italian has a gender – not just those relating to people - Italian speakers are always forced to pay more attention to the gender of the noun than English speakers. 

In sign languages a spatial/visual modality is used to talk about things and actions. So where a spatial expression is called upon - such as the shape of objects or spatial layout - signers will express properties such as the location of objects in a room in a way that takes their actual position into account far more than spoken languages. 

An example of this is that in English one would say that there is a table in the kitchen, whereas in BSL, the signer may refer to the table in a way that reflects its actual physical position in the kitchen. For this reason, signers may pay greater attention to these aspects of the world than speakers of most languages. These differences may underscore some differences in brain networks used in processing language for signers and speakers.