Jul 2, 2020

The Amazing Story of Deaf Children in 1980s Nicaragua Inventing a Brand New Language

 

Nicaraguan Sign Language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign language that was largely spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in Nicaragua in the 1980s. 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. [source]

Before the 1970s, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Deaf people were largely isolated from each other and mostly used simple home sign systems and gesture (‘mímicas’) to communicate with their families and friends. [source]

In 1980, a vocational school for deaf adolescents was opened in the area of Managua of Villa Libertad. By 1983, there were over 400 deaf students enrolled in the two schools. Initially, the language program emphasized spoken Spanish and lipreading, and the use of signs by teachers was limited to fingerspelling (using simple signs to sign the alphabet). The program achieved little success, with most students failing to grasp the concept of Spanish words. [source]

The children remained linguistically disconnected from their teachers, but the schoolyard, the street, and the school bus provided fertile ground for them to communicate with one another. By combining gestures and elements of their home-sign systems, a pidgin-like form and a creole-like language rapidly emerged. They were creating their own language. [source]

Staff at the school, unaware of the development of this new language, saw the children’s gesturing as mime and a failure to acquire Spanish. Unable to understand what the children were saying, they asked for outside help. In June 1986, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education contacted Judy Kegl, an American Sign Language linguist from MIT. As Kegl and other researchers began to analyze the language, they noticed that the young children had taken the pidgin-like form of the older children to a higher level of complexity, with verb agreement and other conventions of grammar. The more complex sign language is now known as Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN). [source]

This clip is from the documentary “Evolution” in the episode “The Mind’s Big Bang”.

 

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