The capacity for language is what sets us apart from other animals. Talk with Your Hands, the third of four Cambridge Shorts films, explores the richness of sensory perception in interviews with blind and deaf people together with insights from neuroscientists.  

Talk with Your Hands: Communicating across the Sensory Spectrum opens with Hayden Dahmm speaking to camera. He is studying engineering and he’s blind. One of the benefits of being blind, he suggests, is that he is not distracted by physical appearance. The words people use, and how they use them, gives him “a genuine impression of the speaker”.

Louise Stern is a writer and artist. She is deaf and explains that her native tongue is American Sign Language. Speaking with her hands, she says: “The body is eloquent and conveys layers of emotion and meaning.” When she describes how eye contact is, for a deaf person, an especially beautiful thing, she hesitates – and then says “it makes me feel like they see me”.

In just ten minutes, Talk with Your Hands conveys the richness of verbal and non-verbal languages and explores how our senses overlap and merge. Through interviews with blind and deaf people, interwoven with insights from neuroscientists, the film demonstrates how we communicate with sounds and gestures – and how each mode of communication has its own characteristics.

Sign language is not a translation of, or substitute for, verbal language. While spoken language is linear (produced through the channels of our mouths one word at a time), sign language is flowing and simultaneous. Similarly, the spoken word is not just the written word spoken out loud. It’s much more than that, explains Hayden, rather as “poetry is the things that cannot be translated”.

The capacity for language is what sets mankind apart from other animals. Years ago, scientists looking at brain damage identified the parts of the brain responsible for speaking and comprehension, for hearing and seeing. Now we know that this understanding of how the brain works is far too simplistic: language, and the different ways we use it, colonises most of the brain.

Talk with Your Hands is one of four films made by Cambridge researchers for the 2016 Cambridge Shorts series, funded by Wellcome Trust ISSF. The scheme supports early career researchers to make professional quality short films with local artists and filmmakers. Researchers Craig Pearson (Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute) and Julio Chenchen Song (Department of Linguistics) collaborated with filmmaker Toby Smith.

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