Knowing Sign Language Increases Ability to Empathize?

Not exactly.

What I’m talking about is deeply tied to empathy, but it involves more than only empathizing. It’s called Theory of Mind (ToM). American psychologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff define it as: “the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intentions, desires, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.” But ToM does not only involve this recognition that other people are entities that think independently of you. It also requires being able to predict behavior based on this recognition. The most famous study, perhaps ‘litmus test’ for theory of mind capacities, is what is known as the Sally-Ann task.

This task, which involves a participant (who is typically a child under 5 years old) involves a scenario that looks like this: an object is placed in place X in the presence of Sally, who leaves the room. While Sally is gone, the object is put in place Y. When Sally comes back, she wants the object. Her friend Ann who has witnessed this scenario is then asked the following question: ‘Where will Sally look for the object, in X or Y?’” The child who has not acquired a theory of mind will say that Sally will guess Y, meaning that he believes Sally and Ann share the same information. Alternatively, the child who has indeed developed a theory of mind will say that Sally-Ann will choose X, because he acknowledges that Sally-Ann was not present for the switching of the position of the object. Thus, the child knows that he and Sally-Ann have independent experiences of the same event.

While it’s obvious that this experiment involves the use of the visual field, what makes it unique is that the proof of theory of mind is expressed through language, leaving many cognitive and social psychologists convinced that language and ToM are inextricably linked.

What Does Sign Language Have To Do With ToM?

At the University of Paris, a psychologist named Cyril Courtin, who also happens to be deaf, had an interesting hypothesis: he proposed that the linguistic features of sign language, (which are strictly visual, unlike spoken language), could promote the development of ToM. He states that “the coordination of visual perspectives is the first skill a child acquires in the pathway toward a representational mind”. A representational mind is one that can hold these two things to be true at once: I know where the object is but I also know Sally didn’t see where it was moved (so she is going to pick X). So when Courtin conducted the Sally-Ann experiment on participants who were deaf (ages 5–8), he found pretty much exactly what he was looking for.

He split up 175 participants (155 who are deaf) into four groups: 1) Deaf children of deaf parents, 2) signing deaf children of hearing parents, 3) oral (lip-reading) deaf children of hearing parents, and 4) hearing children. Courtin performed the Sally-Ann task 175 separate times and separated the results of his data in between-group comparisons. Courtin found when comparing hearing children versus deaf children of deaf parents, second-generation deaf children yielded significantly more success than hearing children. Between the oral deaf children and the hearing children, the 8 year old oral deaf children outperformed the hearing 4 year olds. Among the deaf children of hearing parents, the signing children tended to outperform the oral ones. Overall, the oral children performed slightly below deaf signing children of hearing parents, and the second-generation deaf signing children outperformed the signing children of hearing parents.

These results seem to show substantial evidence that deaf children of deaf parents outperformed all other children, as well as shed light on sign language’s use of visual and perspective-taking skills. Of course, these findings are not implying that anyone who does not learn sign language will be late or not even develop a ToM. This research can only further assert that early exposure to language, particularly sign language, can be a catalyst in the development of ToM.


Courtin, Cyril. “The Impact of Sign Language on the Cognitive Development of Deaf Children: The Case of Theories of Mind.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 5.3 (2000): n. pag. 2000. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.