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Teacher Ivania Guevara demonstrates during class to the children with hearing problems in the Melania Morales School in Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 22, 2004. 

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 sign language being used by deaf children in Managua that was only a few years old.

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Listen to the story.

Teacher Ivania Guevara demonstrates during class to the children with hearing problems in the Melania Morales School in Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 22, 2004. 

Credit:

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters 

Editor's note: A transcript of the radio story can be found below.

In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a dictator whose family had been in power in Nicaragua since 1936

The new government had big plans, including a massive literacy campaign that was launched in 1980. They supported special education in public schools, including provision for deaf children. This was new for Nicaragua: Previously, most deaf children were completely isolated.

Suddenly, for the first time, there was a community of deaf kids all trying to communicate with each other as hundreds were brought together in a few schools in Managua, the capital. It was here that the new language — Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), or Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN) — would emerge.

Related: Virtual schooling poses extra challenges for English-language learners

Today, Nicaraguan Sign Language has its own complex grammar and a broad vocabulary. 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. But in the mid-1980s, linguists were just learning of NSL's existence.

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. Shepard-Kegl thought it would just be one trip. Her first stop was a vocational school.

“When I walked in, I said, ‘I'm a linguist, I study sign language, what do you want from me?’ 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.’”

Judy Shepard-Kegl, linguist, University of Southern Maine

“When I walked in, I said, ‘I'm a linguist, I study sign language, what do you want from me?’ 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.’”

At school, the children were taught lip-reading and Spanish and were told not to use gestures. However, by the mid-1980s, teachers observed that students were signing to each other, communicating with their hands. Until then, there wasn’t any official sign language in Nicaragua. 

Deaf youth with Deaf outreach workers (photo taken in a rural location outside Condega).

Deaf youth with Deaf outreach workers (photo taken in a rural location outside Condega).

Credit:

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. Soon, they became willing collaborators. 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. 

‘Reverse fluency’ 

A few weeks later, Shepard-Kegl visited an elementary school. There, she made an interesting observation: “The younger the kids, the more fluent they were.” 

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. 

Related: Artist Christine Sun Kim on ‘deaf rage,’ the Super Bowl and the power of sound

Not only were the elementary students more fluent than their older peers, but they were also operating on a much more sophisticated level. They had a real language.

“When you see a language, it’s rule-governed. It's got internal consistency,” Shepard-Kegl said. “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.”

But how did the elementary school children make the jump from rudimentary gestures to a language with a full grammar?

Shepard-Kegl believes that the younger kids were in the “critical period” for language, meaning their brains were very receptive to learning. They had spent lots of time with the older children, and been exposed to the gestures and signs that the older group was using.

“That was the stimulus, that was the input to the younger kids. The kids who really benefited from that input were 4, 5, 6.” 

The younger children had no way of knowing that the gestures and signs they had seen weren’t really a language. 

“It had all the right characteristics to fool the human brain into thinking, ‘That's a language.’ So, they learned it. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. That's the kind of formula for this.”

Judy Shepard-Kegl, linguist, University of Southern Maine

“It had all the right characteristics to fool the human brain into thinking, ‘That's a language.’ So, they learned it. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. That's the kind of formula for this.”

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.

“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.”

Shows Judy Shepard-Kegl and an NSL signer in Bilwi, Nicaragua. 

Judy Shepard-Kegl and an NSL signer in Bilwi, Nicaragua. 

 

Credit:

Courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.

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. They’ve tracked its development, seeking insights into language formation, cognition and the human mind.

Related: Florida teen girls step up to translate Indigenous Mayan languages

NSL is evolving 

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.

“What we see in Nicaragua is that older signers, they sign larger than do younger signers,” Flaherty said. “When they're articulating the same sign, their hands actually cover more space.”

Flaherty believes that the earliest generations of NSL signers wanted to make sure they were understood — larger signs are easier to see.

“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.”

Molly Flaherty, Davidson College in North Carolina

“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. 

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.

“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, they're clearly ruining the language, in this way or that way.” 

It’s also striking that the language has emerged so quickly: “It's not like it takes a hundred years to get a language off the ground, and that's really good to know. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will.”

Related: Curious Kids: Why do we say 'OK'?

Another reason linguists are fascinated by NSL is because it allows them to study the way that children’s brains influence language. When children learn a language, they don’t just passively absorb words. They actively interpret the language, looking for patterns, and favoring the ones that occur most frequently. In this way, children drive the way a language develops.

“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. Because anything a child can't learn, can't stay in a language — or at least not for very long.”

This means that children have an outsized influence on language — not just NSL, but any language.

“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. “I like that idea, that we're all using this creation of children all the time, and we don't necessarily realize it.”

Carol Zall is with the language-themed podcast, Subtitle, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Transcript of radio story

Reporter: Carol Zall

Host Marco Werman: One upon a time, there were no languages. Then at some point in human development, we began speaking to each other – eventually in ways that followed grammatical patterns. I’m not sure when irregular verbs entered the picture.

There are theories about how language evolved, but the truth is, nobody really knows.

Today, however, we know a little more, thanks to a language that only came into being recently: Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: My name is Yuri Shepard-Kegl.

Marco Werman: Yuri is 29. She’s deaf. She’s signing these words to her adoptive mother Judy, who’s interpreting for her.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: Right now I’m at home, in my home in Maine. I’ve lived here 13 years. I’m from Nicaragua.

Marco Werman: Yuri was born without hearing. She didn’t communicate much at all for the first few years of her life — until she went to a school for the deaf.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: When I was 4 years old, I entered the school and that’s where I started to learn Nicaraguan Sign Language. 

Marco Werman: So, how exactly does Nicaraguan Sign Language tell us more about the human history of language and communication? Carol Zall has our report.

Carol Zall: The story starts in 1979. There was a left-wing insurrection in central America.

Newscaster: “Victorious Sandinista rebels marched into Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua today.”

Judy Shepard-Kegl: In 1979, there was what they refer to as the triumph of the revolution. The Sandinista government took over.

Carol Zall: That’s Judy Shepard-Kegl, the woman who was interpreting for her daughter, Yuri. Judy teaches linguistics at the University of Southern Maine. Back in 1979, she was a young researcher.

It was in the years after the revolution that Judy first got involved with Nicaragua. The new Sandinista government had big plans for their country.

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.

Carol Zall: As part of this drive for literacy, the government started providing special education for deaf kids in public schools.

This was brand new for Nicaragua. Previously, most deaf children were completely isolated.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: Deaf people were hidden in the homes. I mean, deaf people weren't even going to the churches, there was a real stigma.

Carol Zall: But now, for the first time, hundreds of deaf children were brought together in a few schools in the capital city, Managua. Suddenly, there was a community of deaf kids, all trying to communicate with each other. And this is where the new language emerged.

These kids, who had never been taught sign language, started signing with each other.

Judy was invited by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education to come observe them.

And the first place she went was a vocational school.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: When I walked in, I said, "I'm a linguist, what do you want from me?" 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."

Carol Zall: Now, not only had these kids never been taught sign language, but there just wasn’t any sign language in Nicaragua. At all. At school, the children were being taught lip-reading and Spanish, and were told not to use gestures.

But outside of the classroom — on the playground, on the school bus — they had found a way to communicate. They were gesturing with each other, using the signs they’d used at home with their families.

Judy’s role was to observe the students –—and try to figure out what they were saying.

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.

Carol Zall: When the kids realized that Judy was studying them, they befriended her, started teaching her their signs.

But as Judy began to understand them better, it seemed to her that they didn’t actually have a full-fledged language. It was more like an elaborate system of gestures.

After a couple of weeks, Judy went to see some younger kids at an elementary school.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And there, that’s when I saw something very different.

Carol Zall: The younger children were communicating much more fluently than the older kids. Which is not what you might expect. Usually, we think the older a child is, the better their language skills.

But at this elementary school, the very youngest kids were actually the most fluent. It was as if fluency was going backwards.

Judy knew that this is something that can happen when a new language comes into being.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And that made me realize, wait a minute, what am I looking at here?

Carol Zall: Judy concluded that what she was looking at was the emergence of a brand new language.

Judy believes that the younger kids were in the "critical period" for language, meaning their brains were very receptive to learning. They had spent lots of time with the older kids, and been exposed to those gestures and signs that the older group was using. 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.

Carol Zall: Those children had no way of knowing that those gestures and signs weren’t really a language.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: So, they learned it. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing.    

Carol Zall: This is key to Judy’s understanding of what happened. She believes that as long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language. And what she observed in Nicaragua confirmed that belief.

In the decades since Judy’s first trips to Nicaragua, many other scholars have traveled there to study the new language, too.  

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.

Molly Flaherty is a psychology professor at Davidson College. She’s looked at how the size of the language has been changing from one generation to the next.

Molly Flaherty: Yeah, like how large are the physical signs?

Carol Zall: Flaherty asks people of different ages to describe the same event to her, to see the differences in how they sign. She uses motion-tracking technology to follow the position of people’s wrists in space, to measures the physical size of the signs.

Molly Flaherty: So, what we see in Nicaragua is that older signers, they sign larger than do younger signers. So, that means, like, when they're articulating the same sign, their hands actually cover more space.

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. Because larger signs would be easier to see.

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.

Carol Zall: And that means that other factors can start to influence the language.

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. And, they're clearly ruining the language, in this way or that way, just like you find everywhere else on Earth.

Carol Zall: Studying these changes helps researchers test theories of why languages develop the way they do. 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. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will.

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.

When children are learning a language, they’re not just passively absorbing words.

Molly Flaherty: They're actually really active interpreters of the language that they're learning. They're analyzing it, and they are finding structure there, even sometimes when you didn't intend to put it there.

Carol Zall: Children look for patterns in language, and when they find them, they favor the ones that occur most frequently. And in this way, over time, children drive the way a language develops.

Molly Flaherty: Since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially.

Carol Zall: That means that children have an outsized influence on language. Not just Nicaraguan Sign Language, but any language.

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.

Carol Zall: And that, of course, is what Nicaraguan Sign Language is: the creation of children.

For The World, I’m Carol Zall.

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