Nicaraguan Sign Language
(ISN; Spanish Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua
, Portuguese Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense
) is a signed language
spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua
in the 1970s and 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.
Before the 1970s, there was no deaf community
in Nicaragua. Deaf people were largely isolated from each other, and used simple home sign
systems and gesture
('mímicas') to communicate with their families and friends. The conditions necessary for a language to arise occurred in 1977, when a center for special education established a program initially attended by 50 young deaf children. The number of students at the school (in the Managua
neighborhood of San Judas) grew to 100 by 1979, the year of the Sandinista revolution
In 1980, a vocational school for adolescent deaf children was opened in the area of Managua called 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. However, while the children remained linguistically disconnected from their teachers, the schoolyard, the street, and the bus to and from school provided fertile ground for them to communicate with each other, and by combining gestures and elements of their home-sign systems, a pidgin-like form, and then a creole-like language rapidly emerged. They were creating their own language. This "first-stage" pidgin has been called Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense (LSN), and is still used by many of those who attended the school at this time.
Staff at the school, unaware of the development of this new language, saw the children's gesturing as mime, and as a failure to acquire Spanish. Unable to understand what the children were saying to each other, they asked for outside help, and 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. This more complex sign language is now known as Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN).
ISN and linguistics
ISN offers a rare opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. Prior to ISN, studies of the early development of languages have focussed on creoles
, which develop from the mixture of two (or more) distinct communities of fluent speakers. In contrast, ISN was developed by a group of young people with only non-conventional home sign
systems and gesture.
Some linguists see what happened in Managua as proof that language acquisition is hard-wired inside the human brain. "The Nicaraguan case is absolutely unique in history," Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, maintains. "We've been able to see how it is that children — not adults — generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail. And it's the first and only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air."
Since 1990, several other researchers have begun to study and report on the development of this unique language and its community (including Ann Senghas, Marie Coppola, Richard Senghas, Laura Polich, and Jennie Pyers). While each has their own unique interpretation of the events leading to this language and its development since, all agree that the phenomenon being studied is one of the richest sources of data on language emergence discovered to date.
When is it language?
Researchers disagree regarding at what stage in the development of ISN it was to be considered a fully-fledged language. Coppola argues that isolated family signed systems in Nicaragua already contain components that can be called language. Kegl argues that following an intermediate stage where deaf contact gesturers came together and developed a contact communication sufficient to make young children think their input was a language to be acquired, the first generation of young children acquired a language as complete and rich as any human language known to date and that subsequent changes constitute an expected process of historical change. A. Senghas argues that once ISN came into being it became more and more complex over successive cohorts of young acquirers.
From the beginning of her research in Nicaragua in 1986 until Nicaraguan Sign Language was well-established, Kegl carefully avoided introducing the signed languages she already knew, in particular American Sign Language
, to the Deaf community in Nicaragua. A type of linguistic imperialism had been occurring internationally for decades where individuals would introduce ASL to populations of Deaf people in other countries, often supplanting already existing local signed languages. Kegl's policy was to document and study rather than to impose or change the language or its community. While she did not interfere with Deaf Nicaraguans gaining exposure to other signed languages, she did not introduce such opportunities herself. She has however documented contact and influences with other signed languages that began as early as the 1990s and that continue to influence ISN as any languages in contact influence one another.
Some experts have taken issue, however, with the ethics of isolating the Nicaraguan children. In her defense, Kegl's organization Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects helped establish a Deaf school staffed entirely by Deaf Nicaraguan teachers, and has supported Deaf Nicaraguans in attending and presenting at international conferences.
Evidence for innate language capacities
, known by many as the father of American Sign Language linguistics, disagrees that the emergence of ISN is evidence of a language acquisition device
. Stokoe also questions assertions that the language has emerged entirely without outside influence, from (for example), Spanish or ASL. At present, there is no final evidence available to resolve the controversy surrounding nativism vs. cultural learning, and the dispute reaches far into theoretical linguistics, where different approaches may conceptualize grammar in different and non-compatible ways. Even if the evidence collected thus far seems to indicate a lack of access to Spanish and ASL in the early emergence process, it remains a possibility that the development of ISN is facilitated by the speaker's exposure to more general communicative strategies in early infancy. Alternatives to theories proposing a language acquisition device
have been presented by Michael Tomasello
(among others). Tomasello argues that the process of acquiring a first language is boosted by non-linguistic communication, as in the establishment of joint intentional frames and in the understanding of communicative intentions. In any case, once ISN came into being, like all other languages it actively engaged in contact with other languages in its environment.
Nicaraguan Sign Language as "unwritable"
R. Senghas (1997) used the phrase "unspeakable, unwritable" language in the title of his dissertation to highlight the common misconception that those languages without a written form are not as "real" (a view often held by those who do not study indigenous languages). In a similar fashion, signed languages are often not given their proper recognition because they are not spoken or written. (Senghas has never claimed that Nicaraguan Sign Language is unwritable, just that it was often thought as such by those who do not study sign languages). Generally, the influence literacy has upon the status of a language is also addressed in debates of the so-called "written language paradigm", where it is acknowledged that the availability of written language to some extent must be considered as a culturally and historically dependent phenomenon. Tim Ingold
, a British anthropologist, discussed these matters at some length in "The Perception of the Environment" (2000), though he does not specifically deal with ISN. Since 1996, however, Nicaraguans have been writing their language both by hand and on computer using SignWriting
(see http://www.signwriting.org for samples of written ISN). Currently, Nicaraguan Sign Language has the largest library of texts written in any signed language including three volumes of reading lessons in ISN, Spanish I and II (two levels of texts, workbooks and primers) and Cuentos Español (a collection of stories in Spanish with ISN glossaries), a geography text, and many others.
- 5 minute PBS documentary video showing examples of Nicaraguan Sign Language (QuickTime and RealPlayer formats).
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- Senghas, R., and J. Kegl. 1994b. Soziale Gesichtspunkte bei der Herausbildung der Nicaraguanishen Gebärdensprache. Das Zeichen, no. 29, September, pp. 288-293. [German translation of Senghas and Kegl (1994a)]
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- Polich, L. 1998. Social agency and deaf communities: A Nicaraguan case study. University of Texas at Austin Ph. D. dissertation
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- Senghas, A. (1995). Children's contribution to the birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Ph. D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Distributed by MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.
- Senghas, A. (1995). Conventionalization in the first generation: a community acquires a language. USD Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, 6, Spring, 1995.
- Senghas, A. (2003). Intergenerational influence and ontogenetic development in the emergence of spatial grammar in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Cognitive Development, 18, 511-531.
- Senghas, A. (2005). Language emergence: Clues from a new Bedouin sign language. Current Biology, 15:12, 463-465.
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- Senghas, A., D. Roman, and S. Mavillapalli (2006). Simplemente Unico: Lo que la Comunidad Sorda de Nicaragua le Puede Enseñar al Mundo [Simply Unique: What the Nicaraguan Deaf Community Can Teach the World]. London/Managua: Leonard Cheshire International.
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- Senghas, R. J 1997. An 'unspeakable, unwriteable' language: Deaf identity, language & personhood among the first cohorts of Nicaraguan signers. University of Rochester, NY Ph. D. dissertation
- Senghas, R. J. 2003. New ways to be Deaf in Nicaragua: Changes in language, personhood, and community. In Monaghan, L., Nakamura, K., Schmaling, C., and Turner, G. H. (eds.), Many ways to be Deaf: International, linguistic, and sociocultural variation. Washington, DC. Gallaudet University Press, pp. 260-282.
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- Shepard-Kegl, J. A. 1997. Prólogo. In Lopez Gomez, J.J., Peréz Castellon, A. M., Rivera Rostrán, J. M., and Baltodano Baltodano, J.F., (eds.), Diccionario del Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua. Managua: Asociación Nacional se Sordos de Nicaragua (ANSNIC), pp. ix-xi.
- Shepard-Kegl, J.M. 2002. Teaching Literacy to Deaf Students in Nicaragua: A Common Sense Two-Step Approach. Yarmouth, ME: NSLP, Inc. (downloadable at http://www.nslpinc.org/Download.html)
- Michael Tomasello 2005, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press