Nicaraguan Sign Language – Linguistic Holy Grail?

When, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, increasing amounts of Nicaraguan children without a common language were brought together in special education schools by a new government, one result was the invention of a completely new language.  These children had each been previously using unique forms of homesign or gestures to communicate.  Once brought together (after an initial period when their teachers unsuccessfully attempted to teach the native language), the children became part of a new and growing deaf community located in the capitol city of Managua.  Their newfound socialization necessitated creating a way to communicate; hence, Nicaraguan Sign Language.  The chance to study the formation of a new language in unprecedented ways appeared to many linguists to offer hopes of holy grail proportions.

nicaraguan sign language

Several researchers pounced on this unprecedented opportunity in hopes of finding clues about the formation of all human language.  Judy Kegl, an MIT trained linguist, and Ann Senghas, from Barnard College, were among the first prominent linguists to jump in.  Research on the early users of Nicaraguan Sign Language described some key aspects; the language was concrete, there were primarily only verbs and nouns,  and no complex sentence structure.  This group of early users became known as the “first cohort.”

The number of deaf kids entering the school in Managua increased incrementally each year after the Sandanista Revolution in 1979.  Soon there were hundreds of students with the new students communicating amongst the new and old using this rudimentary sign language.  A transformation occurred in the language after the arrival of this “second cohort” in the early 1980s.  It became quicker, more complex, and included grammatical aspects more like other sign languages than the gestural system used by the first cohort.  A language was born.

One thing has become clear from all of this:  the second cohort, and later incoming children, have generated much of what has become a complex system of communication.  Initially, at least, these aspects were not learned, but created.  Interestingly, studies have shown that earlier learners tend not to use aspects of the language created by later users, and that creations adding grammatical complexity occur only before age 10.  After that age, language advancement seems to occur by adding vocabulary, but not grammar.  Some have seen this as evidence supporting a “critical period” of language development, while others have seen this as supporting an evolutionary model of where language originated.  Research has yet to focus on the critcial reasons why the first cohort continues its use of a simpler language.  Is it that they can’t learn these things, or is that they don’t care to?  Is it that language itself is innate, or rather the desire to socialize coupled with the physical ability to talk, listen, and understand?  It seems certain that whatever else is hard wired into us, people are born with an innate desire to communicate.

Some recent info on this subject can be found here.  Languagehat has a good post hereThis , from the National Science foundation, was also interesting.  This book chapter  from Ann Sengas’ web site has good detailed info.  At the  PBS evolution site you can find a good five minute long video on Nicaraguan Sign Language.