Rain Bosworth studies how deaf children experience the world | Science News

In a darkened room in Rochester, N.Y., a baby girl in a pink onesie peers at a computer screen. Wherever she looks, an eye tracker follows — recording her gaze patterns for future analysis.

The baby, about 6 months old, is neither deaf nor hard of hearing. And she’s never been exposed to sign language of any sort. But somehow, she and others her age can tell the difference between gestures and formal signs. When a woman onscreen uses American Sign Language, these young babies tend to pay attention, locking their eyes on her hands. When she makes non-sign gestures, babies often look at her face instead or look away.

“I thought it was pretty remarkable,” says Rain Bosworth, an experimental psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology whose team reported the results in 2022 in Frontiers in Psychology. The work suggests that babies have an innate sensitivity to sign language.

That idea — that infants are primed to pick up any language, whether spoken or signed — can be hard for people to believe, she says. After all, we live in a hearing-centric world. “There is a bias to think of spoken language as somehow superior to signed language.” But that’s just not true, she says. “Sign language is a full and real language, just as powerful as English.”

Bosworth investigates how people learn and process sign language through studies on deaf and hearing people’s use of vision and touch. With this and other research, she aims to understand how early sensory input — like seeing parents use sign language or hearing scientific jargon spoken at home — shapes our development.

In 2022, after three years at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Bosworth established a new research lab there dubbed PLAY Lab (for Perception, Language and Attention in Youth). She’s passionate about reframing negative perceptions of sign language and deaf people. Deaf herself, Bosworth feels she’s the right person to come up with study questions, she tells me via interpreters on Zoom. “I think about science nonstop 24/7.”

Bosworth’s career is a testament to her tenacity, says Karen Emmorey, a cognitive neuroscientist at San Diego State University. Deaf researchers can face challenges hearing people may never consider, like being asked to arrange interpreters for lectures, meetings, social events — and interviews. But Bosworth is stubborn, Emmorey says. “She’s going to persevere and do what she needs to do to succeed.”

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