Nicaraguan Sign Language
|Nicaraguan Sign Language|
|Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua, ISN|
|Region||The Managua region, but spreading throughout the country|
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (April 2011)|
Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN; Spanish: Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign language largely 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.
Before the 1970s, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Deaf people were largely isolated from each other, and mostly used simple home sign systems and gesture ('mímicas') to communicate with their families and friends, though there were several cases of idioglossia among deaf siblings. 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).
ISN and linguistics
ISN offers a rare opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. Before ISN, studies of the early development of languages had 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, such as Judy Kegl  and R.J. Senghas  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 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.
Bierma  provides a good foundation to ISN structures. He takes an example as “rolling down.” While a person may visualize this as one motion, ISN splits this action into two parts, manner and direction. These smaller parts allow for them to be rearranged in order to create different phrases. The most sophisticated speakers utilize an A-B-A speech pattern; in our example, this reflects the signs roll-down-roll, in order to note that the rolling down motion is continuous, not that the subject rolled and then descended.
Spatial modulations are the building blocks of all sign languages studied to date. A neutrally placed sign is located in front of the chest, however, a sign can be modulated, or directionally altered, in order to convey many different grammatical changes. Spatial modulations can perform various functions including “indicating person or number; providing deictic, locative, or temporal information; or indicating grammatical relationships”. In the article written by Senghas and Coppola, they explore spatial modulation as it occurs in ISN. They found that this movement from the neutral space was much more common among signers who began learning at a younger age than their peers who did so when they were older. Taking this into consideration, as well as their studies on spatial modulations for indicating shared reference and the speed at which signers at different stages of learning signed, Senghas and Coppola determined that child learners are creating Nicaraguan Sign Language; they “changed the language as they learned it”. The fact that students who began signing at a younger age use spatial modulation more often than their older peers, who began signing at ISN’s conception, is indicative that the language matures as the younger cohorts make the grammar more complex. They go on to note that only when a language is not matured, such as with ISN, do language-learning abilities show their transformational and creative capacity.
In the signing space, the use of pointing to indicate referent identity has increased greatly over years since the 1980s. Points can serve a “pronoun-like function, coordinating with the spatial modulations to verbs, to indicate the argument structure of the sentence, and to co-index referents across discourse”.
Senghas and Coppola have also noted that signers who learned ISN before the Extensive Contact Period (before 1983), were inconsistent in whether an event was represented as rotated or reflected (unrotated) in the signing space. If the signer was watching an event where a man on the signer’s left gave an object to a woman on the signer’s right, it was at random that, when the signer reiterated the scene, whether or not the signer would use spatial modulation to mark left and right based on his view from in front of the scene, or as if the signer were facing the same way as the actors in the scene. Signers who began learning after 1983 were not inconsistent in this way. In fact, across multiple signers and multiple scenes, signers would apply the same rotated representation. Senghas and Coppola suggested that this meant that “spatial modulations are being used as a shared grammatical element among this age cohort”.
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 linguistic (though this does not mean she equates homesign with 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. Senghas argues that once ISN came into being it became more and more complex over successive cohorts of young acquirers.
From the beginning of her research in Nicaragua in 1986 until Nicaraguan Sign Language was well established, Kegl carefully avoided introducing the sign 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 sign 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 sign languages, she did not introduce such opportunities herself. She has however documented contact and influences with other sign languages that began as early as the 1990s and that continue to influence ISN as any languages in contact influence one another.
Some experts, such as Felicia Ackerman, have taken issue, however, with the ethics of isolating the Nicaraguan children. 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.
Evidence for innate language capacities
William Stokoe, known by many as the father of American Sign Language linguistics, disagreed 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 incompatible 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.
Nicaraguan Sign Language as "unwritable"
R.J. Senghas (1997) used the phrase "unspeakable, unwritable" language in the title of her 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, sign 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 http://www.signwriting.org for samples of written ISN). Currently, Nicaraguan Sign Language has the largest library of texts written in any sign language, including three volumes of reading lessons in ISN, Spanish I and II (two levels of texts, workbooks and primers), Cuentos Españoles (a collection of stories in Spanish with ISN glossaries), a geography text, and many others.
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- Sign Language
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