Over the years, the centers saw deaf students come and go. By learning English, they argued, deaf individuals would be able to fully participate in U.S. society. Judy Shepard-Kegl: So, I was allowed to just kind of go into these classes, and I just watched what they were doing, and I could be there all day. What Language Do People Speak in the Balkans, Anyway? “To my knowledge,” Senghas writes, “there has not been another case of linguists and psycholinguists documenting the birth of a language on a community-wide scale.”. Carol Zall: As part of this drive for literacy, the government started providing special education for deaf kids in public schools. Such conventions occur when a community of speakers, who at home may have all used different signs to refer to an object or action, begin to consistently default to using just one, says James Shepard-Kegl. Which is not what you might expect. In the decades since Judy’s first trips to Nicaragua, many other scholars have traveled there to study the new language, too. This occurred at a number of schools in western Nicaragua. Like Atlas Obscura and get our latest and greatest stories in your Facebook feed. It was more like an elaborate system of gestures. Every language has a unique story, but Nicaraguan Sign Language is pretty special. “They either borrow or they perish.”. Introduction One of the central goals in research on language acquisition is to discover what knowledge and abilities children bring to the learning situation. When children are learning a language, they’re not just passively absorbing words. Carol Zall: Flaherty asks people of different ages to describe the same event to her, to see the differences in how they sign. Judy knew that this is something that can happen when a new language comes into being. At school, the children were being taught lip-reading and Spanish, and were told not to use gestures. Stokoe also questions assertions that the language has emerged entirely without outside influence, from (for example), Spanish or ASL. It is of particular interest to the linguists who study it, because it offers a unique opportunity to study what they believe to be the birth of a new language. Nicaraguan Sign Language was not imported from some other country. These kids, who had never been taught sign language, started signing with each other. Why Does English Have More Words for Sports Officials Than Any Other Language? And because there was a new group of kids entering the elementary school in Managua each year, researchers have been able to compare successive generations of signers, to see how the language has been changing over time. Older deaf students would teach new students the Nicaraguan Sign Language, and that new generation of students, in turn, would expand on the language. 543-552). Not just Nicaraguan Sign Language, but any language. She uses motion-tracking technology to follow the position of people’s wrists in space, to measures the physical size of the signs. “Kids are good at learning certain things, and since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially. Around the turn of the 20th century, some deaf-education advocates believed that the ability to speak and lip-read a language would be more beneficial to deaf individuals than “manualism,” communication via sign language. Judy was invited by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education to come observe them. Because larger signs would be easier to see. The language is of special interest to linguists, because it allows them to study … The development of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) within the last several years is a prime example of how a need leads to innovation. Every morning, the editorial team at public radio’s international news show The World meets to plan what they'll cover that day. Previously, most deaf children were completely isolated. Molly Flaherty: They're actually really active interpreters of the language that they're learning. No one knows exactly how many individuals are needed to generate a new language or what percentage of those individuals need to be young children. Molly says that older signers are aware that the language is changing — not just the size of the signs, but also things like vocabulary — and, at least some of them think that the younger signers are getting it all wrong: Molly Flaherty: Within the Nicaraguan sign community, you still, you know, will interact with people who will talk about how the kids are being so messy, and so sloppy, in their signing. Teacher Ivania Guevara demonstrates during class to the children with hearing problems in the Melania Morales School in Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 22, 2004.Â. But the first Nicaraguan deaf school did not use ASL or any signs at all. This is a study of language development among deaf children in Nicaragua as the Nicaraguan Sign Language developed. There, she made an interesting observation: “The younger the kids, the more fluent they were.”Â, Shepard-Kegl recognized the linguistic phenomenon of “reverse fluency” — a situation in which the younger members of a speech community gain greater fluency as a language develops, surpassing the older speakers’ linguistic abilities.Â, Related: Artist Christine Sun Kim on ‘deaf rage,’ the Super Bowl and the power of sound. In the 1980s, deaf Nicaraguan children brought together in Managua generated a new sign language, complete with syntax. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will. While ASL has not replaced the pristine, isolated NSL of the 1980s, which still dominates deaf education there, Nicaraguan Sign Language has begun a natural process of integrating elements of ASL. And the fact that the language has emerged so quickly is striking: Molly Flaherty: It's not like it takes a hundred years to get a language off the ground, and that's really good to know. American Sign Language, which has existed since the early 19th century, is used throughout the Americas and is often considered a “lingua franca” among deaf people whose first sign language is a national or regional one. The story you just read is freely available and accessible to everyone because readers like you support The World financially.Â, Thank you all for helping us reach our goal of 1,000 donors. “As you get older, your language instincts tend to diminish,” says Shepard-Kegl. Linguists refer to this displacement as “linguistic imperialism.”. A language emerging in the 80s amidst a revolution? As Shepard-Kegl started to understand them better, it seemed to her that they didn’t have a full-fledged language — it was more like an elaborate system of gestures.Â, A few weeks later, Shepard-Kegl visited an elementary school. Carol Zall: Another reason linguists are fascinated by Nicaraguan Sign Language is because it allows them to study the way that children’s brains influence language. The Nicaraguan signers may well reveal more ways in which language fundamentally affects thought, for other aspects of the language besides spatial … Judy Shepard-Kegl: So, they learned it. Marco Werman: So, how exactly does Nicaraguan Sign Language tell us more about the human history of language and communication? They had spent lots of time with the older kids, and been exposed to those gestures and signs that the older group was using. The language arose naturally, among a generation of young Nicaraguans who needed to communicate, while they interacted. Yuri Shepard-Kegl: When I was 4 years old, I entered the school and that’s where I started to learn Nicaraguan Sign Language.Â. Judy Shepard-Kegl: Deaf people were hidden in the homes. Rather, Nicaraguan Sign Language is as sophisticated, rule governed and versatile as any human language. And, they're clearly ruining the language, in this way or that way, just like you find everywhere else on Earth. It was in the years after the revolution that Judy first got involved with Nicaragua. When ASL arrived in the country after the 1960s, its appropriation by the deaf community resulted in the creation of New Costa Rican Sign Language (sometimes called Modern Costa Rican Sign Language), around 60 percent of which is made up of ASL signs. But how did the elementary school children make the jump from rudimentary gestures to a language with a full grammar? Molly Flaherty: To think about the fact that this integral product that we all use every day, all day, may really be shaped by the youngest minds, and by the youngest people in our world, is, I don't know, I like that idea, that we're all using this, this creation of children all the time, and we don't necessarily realize it. But at this elementary school, the very youngest kids were actually the most fluent. There's a whole lot we don't know about vision and speech perception. Yuri Shepard-Kegl: My name is Yuri Shepard-Kegl. Among the most vocal proponents of eugenics when it came to the deaf community was the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. This was new for Nicaragua: Previously, most deaf children were completely isolated. In 1986, Judy Shepard-Kegl, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained linguist with expertise in signed languages, was invited by the country’s Ministry of Education to observe the children at the schools in Managua. Editor's note: A transcript of the radio story can be found below. Molly Flaherty: Since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially. Featuring. It's got internal consistency,” Shepard-Kegl said. For Shepard-Kegl, the way NSL emerged has reinforced her belief that humans have an innate capacity for language: As long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language. Social distancing might not entirely change the way we talk, but a Mars expedition might do the trick. I’m not sure when irregular verbs entered the picture. It want influenced by any existing language — spoken or signed — and instead is a completely novel language, brought about by children whose previous linguistic repertoire was limited to unsystematic gestures. For all that linguists have learned from the study of Nicaraguan Sign Language, perhaps most important is the proof it has provided for a controversial theory of language. A close look at a strangely global idiom about how little we understand each other. Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN; Spanish: Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign language largely spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s something that has occurred many times in history. The World is a public radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter. Then at some point in human development, we began speaking to each other – eventually in ways that followed grammatical patterns. Carol Zall: Judy concluded that what she was looking at was the emergence of a brand new language. Others believe that when dominant languages arrive, they are appropriated by indigenous communities, often combining with an existing language to create a distinctly local version. The development of Nicaraguan Sign Language via the language acquisition process. Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense, or Nicaraguan Sign Language, is a sign language that was spontaneously invented by deaf schoolchildren in Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. And though it came out of a period of civil strife, it was not political actors but deaf children who created the language’s unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. The Development of Nicaraguan Sign Language via the Language Acquisition Process Ann Senghas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1. We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. She believes that as long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language. Carol Zall: Children look for patterns in language, and when they find them, they favor the ones that occur most frequently. In fact, the linguistic world is rich with a wide variety of mutually unintelligible signed languages. To learn more or withdraw consent, please visit our cookie policy. Today, Nicaraguan Sign Language has its own complex grammar and a broad vocabulary. Carol Zall: Studying these changes helps researchers test theories of why languages develop the way they do. (Kegl is today co-director of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project and married to Shepard-Kegl.) Shepard-Kegl believes that the younger kids were in the “critical period” for language, meaning their brains were very receptive to learning. For example, in early-to-mid-20th century Jim Crow-era Raleigh, North Carolina, under-resourced and pedagogically isolated African-American deaf schools independently developed unique languages, says Susan Burch, an American Studies professor at Middlebury College. One of the signs for “Nicaragua”. Carol Zall: The story starts in 1979. “You start building a vocabulary this way,” he says. It has been learned by successive waves of children from the same culture, all of whom began to learn at about the same age. Nicaraguan Sign Language. © 2021 Atlas Obscura. They had spent lots of time with the older children, and been exposed to the gestures and signs that the older group was using. And the first place she went was a vocational school. “To think about the fact that this integral product that we all use every day, all day, may really be shaped by the youngest minds, and by the youngest people in our world,” Flaherty said. Carol Zall: And that means that other factors can start to influence the language. This means that children have an outsized influence on language — not just NSL, but any language. Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN; Span­ish: Idio­ma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign lan­guage that was largely spon­ta­neously de­vel­oped by deaf chil­dren in a num­ber of schools in west­ern Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. Deaf youth with Deaf outreach workers (photo taken in a rural location outside Condega). At prese… A language profile for Nicaraguan Sign Language. This educational strategy, known as “oralism,” has long been a subject of debate in deaf education, one that was particularly fierce in the United States where ASL originated. In order to communicate manually, these communities had to develop their own signed languages. “When you watched these guys signing, it just became very clear, it was like somebody just wiped away the fog, and you could see the grammar right there in front of you.”. Courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. Shepard-Kegl spent whole days watching the students in their classes, and the kids became curious about what she was doing. And it has helped fill in some gaps in our knowledge about how languages evolve, how they work, and the role a community plays in all of that — especially when it comes to the youngest learners. This is hardly surprising to linguists who appreciate that like all languages, Nicaragua's sign language emerged among a human population. That's the kind of formula for this.”. Private Trip: Immersive Art and Otherworldly Landscapes of Santa Fe, Culinary Naples: Producers, Purveyors, and Pizzaioli, Tales From the Museum: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, How to Make a Murder: Writing Your Own Murder Mystery Party With Abi Inman, Seeing America Through Its Roadside Signs, Why 1920s L.A. Not only did this allow for the independent creation of Nicaraguan Sign Language, but it helped the nascent form of communication to survive. At all. Carol Zall: That’s Judy Shepard-Kegl, the woman who was interpreting for her daughter, Yuri. Nicaraguan Sign Language: the Language of the Truly Stimulus-Impoverished For much of the history of the Nicaraguan state, deaf children had essentially no formal support from the government. Nicaraguan Sign Language has been of particular interest to linguists as one of the few languages whose birth was recorded. “You might imagine that the pressure to be understood might keep you big versus a smaller sign might be easier to miss, so it might be harder for somebody who doesn't share your language to be able to understand.”, Younger signers today, however, are part of an established language community, so they don’t feel the same pressure to keep their signs large.Â. Sign up for our daily newsletter TOP OF THE WORLD and get the big stories we’re tracking delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. Shepard-Kegl was not alone in her assessment, and in the decades since that first trip to Nicaragua, many other scholars have traveled there to study the new language, too. Shepard-Kegl thought it would just be one trip. Though American Sign Language and some other widely utilized sign languages, such as Chinese Sign Language and Indo-Pakistani Sign Language, have long histories, they were often inaccessible to deaf families and institutions in rural, mountainous, or politically-charged regions. In the 1980s, deaf Nicaraguan children brought together in Managua generated a new sign language, complete with syntax. Nicaragua has many minority groups. In 1986, Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl, a sign language linguist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was invited by the Ministry of Education to furnish consulting services at the Deaf schools established by the Nicaraguan government in Barrios San Judas and Villa Libertad in Managua. Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) first emerged in the 1970s when deaf children were brought together in schools in western Nicaragua. Spanish is regarded as the official language of Nicaragua. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. Many linguists regard Nicaraguan Sign Language, or NSL, as an important test case, because the language developed almost in isolation, and … It was as if fluency was going backwards. Deaf Costa Ricans born prior to the 1960s, for example, primarily use what is referred to as Old Costa Rican Sign Language. Nevertheless, Nicaraguan Sign Language de-veloped rapidly. “That was the stimulus, that was the input to the younger kids. Not only were the elementary students more fluent than their older peers, but they were also operating on a much more sophisticated level. Judy Shepard-Kegl: And that made me realize, wait a minute, what am I looking at here? But outside of the classroom — on the playground, on the school bus — they had found a way to communicate. In this respect, Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) is quite unique. But while the country’s deaf children were being taught Spanish inside the classroom, outside the classroom they were spontaneously developing their own method of signed communication. Sign up for our newsletter and enter to win the second edition of our book. Her first stop was a vocational school. Related: Curious Kids: Why do we say 'OK'? Molly Flaherty: Yeah, like how large are the physical signs? When the children interacted, instead of adapting their signs to fit an existing language, they developed something unique. Â. To learn more, review our Cookie Policy. Until then, there wasn’t any official sign language in Nicaragua.Â. Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense, or Nicaraguan Sign Language, is a sign language that was spontaneously invented by deaf schoolchildren in Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. In this episode of Language Stories, we're exploring the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Follow us on Twitter to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders. Offer available only in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico). Younger signers today don’t have that same pressure: they do expect to be understood: Molly Flaherty: Because they share a language the way that the vast majority of us here on Earth share a language with other people. All rights reserved. It was not invented by teachers, parents, or deaf adults and then passed to students through deliberate instruction. Carol Zall: The younger children were communicating much more fluently than the older kids. They now are based in the USA but run Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects.. Tio Antonio – Antonio, a chef originally from Valencia, Spain, lives and works in Granada, Nicaragua running the Cafe de las Sonrisas and other projects providing employment … They had a real language. Professor of Psychology and Director of the Language Acquisition and Development Research Laboratory Ann Senghas studies the evolution of language. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will.”. Marco Werman: Yuri is 29. It is spoken by about 90% of the country’s population. Soon, they became willing collaborators. She’s signing these words to her adoptive mother Judy, who’s interpreting for her. And they pointed to a bunch of kids milling around on a little basketball court in front of us and said, "We want to understand what they're talking about.". These children, who ranged in age from four to 16, had no experience with sign language beyond the “home signs” they used with family members to communicate broad concepts. According to Flaherty, older signers are aware that the language is changing — not just the size of the signs, but also things like vocabulary — and at least some of them think that the younger signers are getting it all wrong. One such initiative was opening the first public school for deaf education, the Melania Morales Special Education Center, in Managua’s Barrio San Judas. There was a left-wing insurrection in central America. Get a detailed look at the language, from population to dialects and usage. Judy Shepard-Kegl: When I walked in, I said, "I'm a linguist, what do you want from me?" They supported special education in public schools, including provision for deaf children. Carol Zall: That means that children have an outsized influence on language. And though it … Molly Flaherty, a psychology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, uses motion-tracking technology to follow the position of people’s wrists in space, to see how the size of the language — the physical size of the signs in space — has been changing over time. Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua. Judy Shepard-Kegl: And there, that’s when I saw something very different. Linguistically, this is especically interesting, as it provides linguists a rare opportunity to study the birth of a new language. Because anything a child can't learn, can't stay in a language — or at least not for very long.”. Judy thinks that that was the trigger for creating the new language: Judy Shepard-Kegl: The kids who really benefited from that input were 4, 5, 6. Went Wild for an 18th-Century Scottish Novelist, This Miniature Quran Bears Witness to an Immense History, The Archaeologist Who Collected 4,500 Beer Cans, Lessons on Enduring a Lonely Winter From Antarctic Voyagers, How a Blacksmith in Jordan Created His Own Sign Language, In Naples, Praying With Skulls Is an Ancient Tradition, Inside a Domed Pyramid With Astounding Acoustics and a History of Miracles, Courtesy Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. What Is the Hardest Language in the World to Lipread? The origin of Nicaraguan Sign Language tells us a lot about language creation In the mid-1980s, linguists stumbled upon a kind of natural experiment on language creation — a … However, by the mid-1980s, teachers observed that students were signing to each other, communicating with their hands. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a dictator whose family had been in power in Nicaragua since 1936.Â. Marco Werman: Yuri was born without hearing. The number of speakers on Rama Cay island was only 4 in 1992, due to language shift to English that engendered Rama Cay Creole. Carol Zall: When the kids realized that Judy was studying them, they befriended her, started teaching her their signs. Want to see what's on deck? Carol Zall: Molly thinks the change has to do with the older signers, the ones from the earliest generations, wanting to make sure they were understood. How Deaf Children in Nicaragua Created a New Language, "Thanks a little, thanks the most, please just share your drinking toasts.". We depend on ad revenue to craft and curate stories about the world’s hidden wonders. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site. After a couple of weeks, Judy went to see some younger kids at an elementary school. Judy’s role was to observe the students –—and try to figure out what they were saying. They actively interpret the language, looking for patterns, and favoring the ones that occur most frequently. “The young kids see people trying to communicate, and repeating, and they see gestures, and they look at this, and their brains go, ‘Boom, I'm going to focus on this.’ We are sort of predestined to do that.”, Judy Shepard-Kegl and an NSL signer in Bilwi, Nicaragua.Â. It’s an opportunity that owes much to the birth of NSL occuring in the 1980s, when researchers had access to video cameras and could accurately record exactly what was happening. James Shepard-Kegl – James and his wife Judy have been involved in Nicaraguan Sign Language for many years now. While the older students had more life experience, it was actually the younger kids that drove the language’s development. Sign languages are not simply a series of gestures; they utilise the same grammatical machinery that is found in spoken languages. Nicaraguan Sign Language similarly developed in a vacuum. In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky suggested that children are born with an innate ability to learn human language. Judy Shepard-Kegl: In 1979, there was what they refer to as the triumph of the revolution. In the mid-1980s, linguists stumbled upon a kind of natural experiment on language creation — a sign language being used by deaf children in Managua that was only a few years old. “When you see a language, it’s rule-governed. “What we see in Nicaragua is that older signers, they sign larger than do younger signers,” Flaherty said. the fact that it is an unusual situation to begin with — NSL is a new language that is emerging in the absence of influence of other already existing languages HawaiÊ»i’s Native-Language Newspaper Archive, Prolonged Isolation Can Lead to the Creation of New Accents, combined with a locally developed sign language in the 1960s, around 60 percent of which is made up of ASL signs. It is a concept that has generated considerable controversy. Flaherty believes that the earliest generations of NSL signers wanted to make sure they were understood — larger signs are easier to see. Smaller-scale isolated deaf-education programs had existed previously in 20th-century Nicaragua, Shepard-Kegl says, but the critical mass needed to spontaneously develop Nicaraguan Sign Language only occurred with the opening of Melania Morales. Carol Zall: But now, for the first time, hundreds of deaf children were brought together in a few schools in the capital city, Managua. It's All Greek to You and Me, So What Is It to the Greeks? Babies are not given grammar lessons and yet they reliably learn grammar because they have inherent expectations about how languages function, says Shepard-Kegl. Offer subject to change without notice. The new Sandinista government had big plans for their country. Nicaraguan Sign Language is a language that was developed spontaneously, by deaf children in the 1970s and 1980s. Judy Shepard-Kegl: They were involved in all kinds of promotions to get a fourth-grade education for everyone, get people literacy, improve health care, you know the literacy rate was horrendous. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. I’m from Nicaragua. “Within the Nicaraguan sign community, you still will interact with people who will talk about how the kids are being so messy, and so sloppy, in their signing. And this is where the new language emerged. They copied the grammar the little kids generated.”. For Kegl and the other linguists that accompanied her after the initial visit, the opportunity to identify and study Nicaraguan Sign Language was “extremely rare,” writes Senghas in her 1995 MIT doctoral dissertation, Children’s Contribution to the Birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which focuses on the years she spent working with Kegl. 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Most wondrous stories and deliver them straight to you and me, what! Born prior to the younger kids that drove the language arose naturally, among a population. I’M at home with their hands actually cover more space.” development among deaf in... Withdraw consent, please visit our cookie policy Mars expedition might do trick! Used worldwide: as part of this drive for literacy, the linguistic world is rich a! Of technology 1 inventor of the language to her that they 're the! For helping us reach our goal of 1,000 donors for her daughter, yuri small groups Nicaraguans. Older kids classroom — on the school and that’s where I started to learn language... As you get older, your language instincts tend to diminish, ” he says been particular. Is because it allows them to study the new Sandinista government had plans... Any other language years now is regarded as the triumph of the classroom — on world. Signs they’d used at home, in the 1970s s development abilities children bring to the churches, are. Her their signs to fit an existing language, from population to dialects and usage fact, the centers deaf. A language develops befriended her, started teaching her their signs is what Sign! Just Nicaraguan Sign language has been of particular interest to linguists as one of the radio story can be below... American Sign language her adoptive mother Judy, who’s interpreting for her 1980s deaf children in Nicaragua invented completely!

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