Nicaraguan Sign Language

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Nicaraguan Sign Language

Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua, ISN

Signed in: Nicaragua 
Region: The Managua region, but spreading throughout the country
Total signers: 3,000 (estimated in 1997; no official census data available)
Language family: developed as an independent pidgin-like language from a number of home sign systems, with the addition of an ASL-influenced manual alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-1: None
ISO 639-2: sgn
ISO 639-3: ncs


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.


[edit] History

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).

[edit] 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 focused 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 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.

[edit] Controversy

[edit] 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.

[edit] Linguistic imperialism

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.

[edit] Evidence for innate language capacities

William Stokoe, 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.

[edit] 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 on 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 Perception of the Environment (2000), though he does not specifically deal with ISN. Since 1996, however, Nicaraguans have been writing their language by hand and on computer using SignWriting (see 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), Cuentos Español (a collection of stories in Spanish with ISN glossaries), a geography text, and many others.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Further reading

  • Kegl, J. 1994. Conference Report: Linguistic Society of America Meeting, January 6-9, 1994. Signpost. vol.7, no. 1, Spring, pp. 62-66.
  • Kegl, J. 1994. The Nicaraguan Sign Language Project: An Overview. Signpost. vol.7, no. 1, Spring, pp. 24-31.
  • Senghas, R., and J. Kegl. 1994a. Social Considerations in the Emergence of Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Sign Language). Signpost. vol.7, no. 1, Spring, pp. 40-46.
  • 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)]
  • Kegl, J. 2000. Is it soup yet? Or, When is it Language? In the Proceedings of the Child Language Seminar 1999. City University, London.
  • Kegl, J. 2002. Language Emergence in a Language-Ready Brain: Acquisition Issues. In Morgan, G. and Woll, B., Language Acquisition in Signed Languages. Cambridge University Press, pp. 207-254.
  • Kegl, J. 2004. Language Emergence in a Language-Ready Brain: Acquisition Issues. In Jenkins, Lyle, (ed), Biolinguistics and the Evolution of Language. John Benjamins.
  • Kegl, J. (in press). The Case of Signed Languages in the Context of Pidgin and Creole Studies. In Singler, J. and Kouwenberg, S. (eds.), The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies. London: Blackwell's Publishers.
  • Kegl, J. and G. Iwata. 1989. Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense: A Pidgin Sheds Light on the “Creole?” ASL. In Carlson, R., S. DeLancey, S. Gildea, D. Payne, and A. Saxena, (eds.). Proceedings of the Fourth Meetings of the Pacific Linguistics Conference. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon, pp. 266-294.
  • Morford, J. P. & Kegl, J. 2000. Gestural precursors of linguistic constructs: How input shapes the form of language. In D. McNeill (Ed.), Language and Gesture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 358-387.
  • Kegl J., Senghas A., Coppola M 1999. Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In M. DeGraff (ed), Comparative Grammatical Change: The Intersection of Language Acquisistion, Creole Genesis, and Diachronic Syntax, pp.179-237. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Polich, L. 1998. Social agency and deaf communities: A Nicaraguan case study. University of Texas at Austin Ph. D. dissertation
  • Polich, L. 2005. The Emergence of the deaf community in Nicaragua: "With sign language you can learn so much." Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Pyers, J. E., and A. Senghas (2006). Referential shift in Nicaraguan Sign Language: A comparison with American Sign Language. In P. Perniss, R. Pfau, and M. Steinbach, (Eds.), Visible variation: Comparative studies on sign language structure. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Saffran, J. R., A. Senghas, and J. C. Trueswell. (2001). The acquisition of language by children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98: 23, 12874-12875.
  • Senghas, A. (1994). Nicaragua’s lessons for language acquisition. Signpost: The Journal of the International Sign Linguistics Association, 7:1, spring 1994.
  • 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.
  • Senghas, A., A. Özyürek, and S. Kita (2005). Language emergence in vitro or in vivo? Response to comment on “Children creating core properties of language: evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua” Science, 309: 5731, 56.
  • Senghas, A., A. Özyürek, and S. Kita. (2002). Encoding motion events in an emerging sign language: From Nicaraguan gestures to Nicaraguan signs. In A. Baker, B. van den Bogaerde & O. Crasborn (Eds.) Cross-linguistic perspectives in sign language research. Selected papers from TISLR 2000. Hamburg: Signum Press.
  • Senghas, A., and M. Coppola. (2001). Children creating language: How Nicaraguan Sign Language acquired a spatial grammar. Psychological Science, 12, 4: 323-328.
  • 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.
  • Senghas, A., S. Kita, and A. Özyürek (2004). Children creating core properties of language: evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305: 5691, 1779-1782.
  • 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.
  • Senghas, R. J., Senghas, A., Pyers, J. E. 2005. The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In Parker, S. T., Langer, J., and Milbrath, C. (eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. London: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, pp. 287-306.
  • 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
  • Michael Tomasello 2005, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press
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