Established as a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center in 2006, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) seeks to advance understanding of the behavioral and brain mechanisms of learning.

Through collaborative research, the Center works to answer fundamental science questions about higher cognition and how humans learn, especially learning through the eyes. We investigate the effect of visual processes, visual language, and visual learning and social experiences on the development of cognition and language, reading, and literacy. With a particular focus on deaf individuals and sign language, we study learning processes in monolinguals and bilinguals across the life span in order to promote the meaningful translation of science for the benefit of education and society. Visit the main VL2 website to learn more.

Questions we ask

  • What role does learning through the visual medium play in building core content knowledge central to higher cognition?
  • What role does visual processing play in building the core linguistic representations underlying language learning, bilingualism, reading, and literacy?
  • What are the formal properties of visual languages, the contexts that enable learning, and the multiple pathways used to derive meaning from visual languages and print in early reading?

What the eyes reveal about the brain

  • Signed and spoken languages are processed largely in the same brain tissue. This tissue does not process sound, but rather the specific rhythmic temporal patterning that underlies all language.
  • Early exposure to a visual language provides visual and higher cognitive processing advantages.
  • This exposure maintains the brain's sensitivity to the language patterns it must experience within the required developmental timeframes.
  • Early exposure to ASL does not confuse the child or delay spoken language. Instead, it keeps the brain's language tissue and systems 'alive' and propels the development of spoken English
  • Visual Sign Phonology facilitates deaf children's development of English reading skills.
  • Exposure to ASL and English enhances the emergence of literacy in deaf children.
  • Bilingual deaf children have the same benefits seen in children who are bilingual in other languages.

With its four hubs, VL2 has become a resource for the world

Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging

Founder and Scientific Director: Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, Assistant Director: Dr. Clifton Langdon

BL2 investigates how the brain interacts with its environment to support language learning, reading, and bilingualism.

Renowned cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto and her researchers use cutting-edge, integrated fNIRS neuroimaging, thermal infared imaging, and eye-tracking technologies to conduct research on how young hearing and deaf children best learn language and literacy.

BL2 is the site of many collaborative research activities, projects that advance scientific knowledge, and federal and foundation grants involving national and international visiting scholars.

BL2 is a core training site for Gallaudet’s Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program, offers neuroimaging training and certification, and serves as a resource for the Washington, D.C., area and the nation in advancing basic scientific knowledge about how children learn language, read, and become high-functioning bilinguals.

Early Education and Literacy Lab

Director: Dr. Thomas Allen

EL2 develops and distributes toolkits to measure young deaf and hard-of-hearing children’s language and cognitive development.

EL2 engages in classroom and home-based studies focusing on the mutable and immutable factors that contribute to the development of literacy in deaf children. 

Researchers identify individual differences among children and the impact they have on emerging literacy. They use a variety of statistical modeling approaches to analyze large longitudinal data sets. Students working in EL2 benefit from opportunities to analyze this data for their theses and dissertations, many of which get published.

EL2 also develops, validates, and distributes new assessments that measure children's language and cognitive development. The lab also collaborates with TL2 and ML2 to evaluate various Center translational products.

Motion Light Lab

Founder and Creative Director: Melissa Malzkuhn, Science Director: Dr. Lorna Quandt

ML2 innovates technologies to help improve and advance research-based translation.

Examples include the world’s first interactive ASL-English bilingual storybook apps and a storybook creator platform, based on research from BL2 and EL2, and other reading and learning tools optimized for bilingual language and reading development.

Ongoing projects include collaboration with BL2 to use motion capture technology to create avatars for incorporation in a robot-avatar-thermal enhanced learning tool.

ML2 keeps Gallaudet on the front line of advances in visually-based learning technologies. It offers students rich opportunities for training in computational and digital media innovation.

Translation in the Science of Learning Lab

Director: Dr. Melissa Herzig

TL2 translates VL2 research discoveries for application in the wide range of learning environments that deaf children experience.

TL2 produces publications and resources—e.g., research briefs, information packages, and websites—that summarize research in easy-to-read language for parents, educators, doctors, policymakers, and other professionals.

TL2 staff also provide training for educators on bilingual education and language policy, and they oversee mechanisms for quality control and risk assessment for publicly-available ASL products from VL2 and elsewhere.


The work of Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto and VL2 has debunked several myths related to bilingualism and early language acquisition.

Scroll through the gallery to read the myths and learn what science has to say.

Download your own PDF copy of our Mythbusters cards.