by Brian Rivera
As the authors report, Nicaragua didn’t have an educational system that allowed deaf individuals to interact. Because of this, individuals only developed “home signs” to communicate with family members through gestures which were specific to each individual. The introduction of an educational program for the deaf from elementary school through a vocational school allowed for continual contact between deaf students. This changed allowed students to interact both formally in educational setting and also informally outside of class. This newfound space provided a fertile ground for adapting and reshaping the language students used.
To better look at the specific adaptation of the Nicaraguan Sign Language, the paper contrasts narrative descriptions from a Spanish speaker to that of Nicaragua Sign Language Signers. The comparison shows signers using sequential descriptions with multiple distinguishable gestures that contrast with the Spanish speaker’s uniform and holistic gestures. The authors state that this discrete and combinatorial approach to language might have allowed a gain in communicative power for the signers. Additionally, the pieces the signers use as discrete units reveals the primitives understood as grammatical units.
This paper and this cohort of student is an example of the range of cognitive and neurological processes that can thrive and adapt under different circumstances. It is an example of how the brain, and even language, is not a one-size-fits-all tool but rather more like a Swiss army knife with many flexible tools for adaptation.
Senghas, A., Kita, S., & Özyürek, A. (2004). Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from
an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305(5691), 1779-1782.