Deaf Children in Nicaragua Teach Scientists About Language

By Sara Kennedy

Before the 1970s, most deaf people in Nicaragua had little contact with each other. Deafness was a stigma, and deaf children were either kept at home, or sometimes schooled with children who had developmental disabilities. Illiteracy was almost a given. When the first schools opened in 1981, deaf children came together and began to communicate with each other. No one actually taught them to sign, but they began to develop a system of gestures to get their messages across.

In 1986, linguist Judy Kegl was invited to Nicaragua at the invitation of the country's Ministry of Education to consult with one of the new schools for the deaf, and Kegl assumed that she would be there a few weeks, helping teachers find ways to do a better job of educating deaf children. Kegl had assumed that the deaf would use a well-developed sign language, like deaf people in much of the rest of the world. But after she arrived, she learned that a rich, varied, and newly-constructed language made of signs was just then being born in the minds, hands, and faces of children. She was stunned to discover that she was present at the birth of a new language.

When Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) began, it was mostly simple pantomime and individual home signs. As the children first developing NSL grew up and had children of their own, (unusual before 1980) the second generation expanded and improved the language. Today, NSL has emerged as a sophisticated language with traits seen in nearly all other languages - both spoken and signed.

NSL follows many basic rules common to all tongues, even though the children were not taught them. This spontaneous development of NSL indicates to linguists that some language traits are not passed on by culture, but instead arise due to the innate way human beings process language.


The development of language has long been the focus of debate from experts in the "nature" and the "nurture" camps. Those in the "nature" camp contend that grammar is essentially hard-wired in the brain, waiting to develop with experience, and the "nurture" camp proponents hold that language has no innate basis and is just culturally transmitted.

There was no way to research these hypotheses ethically, as researchers could hardly separate a group of babies from their parents in order to observe whether they developed a new language on their own.

Linguists are excited to study this new language, offering the benefit of being a recently developed language in contrast to studying modern language, most of which are ancient in origin. Scientists are intrigued by this sign language invented by a small group of deaf children because of the possibility of clearer insight into how humans learn language.

One key trait that the children adopted is called "discreteness." When languages have this trait, information is broken down into smaller units for clarity. Expressions of motion are particularly useful for studying discreteness in spoken and sign languages. In developed languages, we break up the idea of continuous motion into separate words. So, in the expression "rolling down the hill", one word (rolling) conveys the movement, while another (down) conveys the direction.

Researchers showed deaf people from a variety of age groups a cartoon, in which a cat swallows a ball and then wobbles down a steep road. Then they asked the participants to tell the story. The oldest group, who invented the initial "crude" form of NSL, told it with one continuous gesture as a hearing person might use to convey the concept. But the younger groups did something different. They separated the movement and direction into separate signs as is done in spoken language.

This is compelling evidence that humans are predisposed to develop language in this way, say the researchers. In other words, children instinctively break information down into small chunks so they can have the flexibility to string them back together, to form sentences with a range of meanings. Interestingly, adults lose this talent, which also suggests there is an innate element to the language learning process. "We lose the ability to break information into discrete elements as we age," said Dr. Ann Senghas, a lead researcher. "It is not just that children can do it, but adults can't do it." Dr Senghas suggests that this new research solidifies the theory that there is an instinctive component to the way we learn language.

Kegl notes that there is so much to learn from Nicaraguan children that the project can be overwhelming on some levels. But, she adds, "for a linguist to be able to watch a language come into being is a once in a lifetime opportunity What was once thought to be a trip of a few weeks has turned into 13 years and more of study. Kegl's current theory? "I'm convinced that language is in the brain. But I'm also convinced that language needs a trigger."

"It's like a rocket going off in your head," says Adrian Perez, one of the (now adult) children liberated by the invented language. "It's just an understanding that soars." Today Perez teaches the new language, known simply as Nicaraguan Sign Language. He lost his hearing to a fever when he was a toddler. He was born into a happy family, but as a deaf boy in Nicaragua, he couldn't share in their happiness. "You can't express your feelings," he says of being without language. "Your thoughts may be there but you can't get them out. And you can't get new thoughts in."

For more information please see: Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.:

Copyright 2014 Hands & Voices   ::   Privacy Policy   ::   Credits