Decades ago, there were very few educational opportunities for deaf children in Nicaragua. But starting in the late 1970s, a deaf education program in Managua was expanded, bringing in many more young deaf people. The program focused on teaching spoken Spanish to the children, but did not provide tools like hearing aids to improve their residual hearing. The teachers at the program had no experience in or knowledge of sign languages.
Luckily, unlike some other oral-language-focused deaf education programs, the teachers did not discourage the children from gesturing to each other. The children brought in gestures that they had been using at home to communicate to each other. They also picked up gestures that children around them were using. Soon, using the combination of gestures from different sources, the children had developed a rudimentary way of communicating with each other.
With each successive generation of students, students brought new signs from their homes, but also another crucial element: their young, growing brains. Their innate human language capacity enabled them to learn from and build on the gestures that the other students were already using. With each cohort, gestures grew into signs and new grammatical constructions were added. All this came together in a new language. This young language is called Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL).
The story of NSL provides a lot of insight into languages. The story demonstrates the power of the human ability for language, that our linguistic capacity is strong enough to “create a language from nothing.” It also gives us insight into how languages emerge in isolation, without much in the way of previous language abilities. Linguists have been aware of sign languages that have emerged recently over a relatively brief period of time, but NSL is one of the few that researchers were fortunate enough to be able to study from its very beginning.
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