Nicaraguan Deaf Kids Create New Language

September 24, 2004

GRANADA – After years of socialisolation and neglect, Nicaragua’s deafcommunity is being celebrated internationallythis week for having created a newlanguage.Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN) isa distinct form of sign language that hasevolved in Nicaragua during the past 25years, according to a report published lastweek in the U.S. journal Science.The language was born out of necessityby deaf children who, after never beingexposed to any formal language, began toenroll in Managua’s first special educationschool in 1977.THE children quickly were able tomature their communication capabilitiesfrom rudimentary hand gestures into a completelinguistic system, according to AnnSenghas, a psycholinguist who has studiedthe Nicaraguan deaf community for 14years, and author of the investigation.The language, Senghas says, hasevolved at an incredible speed.“It has undergone 100 years of changein just one decade,” she told The TicoTimes this week during a phone interviewfrom her office at New York’s BarnardCollege.SENGHAS explained that the remarkableaspect of this story is not thatNicaraguans have their own sign language– virtually every country has developed itsown distinct form of sign language.What makes the Nicaraguan case studyso interesting, she said, is the fact that linguistsknow when this particular languagewas born and its evolution is evidence thatchildren create languages.“Patterns in languages come from children,”Senghas said. “Languages grow andchange, but the moment of reproduction iswhen it is passed down to children.”Senghas explained there is already evidencethat younger Nicaraguan deaf childrenwho sign do so in a way that is slightlydistinct from the language’s founders,who are now in their 30s and 40s. It is similarto the way children in any country canspeak a form of contemporary slang that ishard for parents or grandparents to understand.Senghas, however, shies away fromreferring to changes as “slang.”“Slang is new words, so it is all slang,”she said.THE original Nicaraguan language pioneerswere approximately 50 deaf studentswho, after years of being isolated in theirhomes, got a chance to attend the country’sfirst special education school in 1977.The revolutionary Sandinista governmentthen opened a special vocationalschool in 1981, as part of its education andliteracy campaign. By the end of 1981,deaf enrollment in the school had grown to200, according to Senghas’ findings.Nicaragua’s deaf community currentlynumbers close to 1,000, and has publishedtwo dictionaries on the language. Thegrammar, however, has still not been codifiedin print.Senghas says she hopes the findingwill counter the negative stigma associatedwith signing in Nicaragua, and teach thegeneral public that the deaf community iscommunicating in a complex language, nota simple form of pantomime.

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