A Language Created Out Of Thin Air: Nicaraguan Sign Language

NSL_possible2
 

Serial guest writer Paul Mains has created another brilliant piece for us, this time about the genesis of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL)

Give it a look and tell us what you think!

~Brian

—————————

  

How do humans learn language? Are we innately endowed with the ability to speak, or is it something that is transmitted to us solely through social interaction?

The “nature vs. nurture” debate of language learning is one of the most common ones in the world of linguistics, and it continues on to this day. Proponents of the “nature” argument, such as renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, contend that humans’ brains are designed especially to accommodate language, and that language is ingrained in our genes. Those who support the “nurture” argument, such as psychologist B. F. Skinner, maintain that humans do not have any kind of innate capacity to learn languages, but rather, learning language is just like learning any other skill. The ubiquity of language, then, would be explained by the fact that language is a beneficial and necessary skill in order to function in human society.

This debate has proven notoriously difficult to resolve for a couple of reasons. First, languages are ancient in origin, and we don’t know exactly when or how language developed. Second, virtually everyone is born and raised in a society that uses at least one form of spoken or signed language. Therefore, we have no way of finding out what a group of humans would do if they were born into a society with no language — in essence, there is no linguistic “control group”. Would they tap into their innate ability to learn language and form a language similar to the many languages that exist today? Or, without access to a preexisting language as an example, would their system of communication be completely different?

However, in rural Nicaragua in the 1970s, the perfect linguistic control group appeared to help provide insight into the nature vs. nurture debate. Indeed, with the advent of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), humans — for the first time in documented history — were able to witness the birth of a language.

LATG2_image_1
The Old Cathedral of Managua, the city in which Nicaraguan Sign Language developed. Image via Thomas Splettstoesser / Wikipedia

 

The Deaf Community in Nicaragua

Before the 1970s, deaf people in Nicaragua had no official language. Some deaf children attended special programs in schools, but there was never a large group of deaf people together at the same time. As a result, deaf people communicated using primitive gestures known as home signs (or “mímicas”, as they are called in Nicaragua), which expressed only the concepts necessary to enable rudimentary communication. Given that deaf people did not have a common place to gather, deaf children generally created their own home signs with their families, so no two home sign systems were alike.

In the late 1970s, however, policies regarding special education in Nicaragua changed, and a school for deaf children opened up in the neighborhood of San Judas. Thus, for the first time ever, deaf children were brought together to a single location, and were allowed to interact with each other in large numbers.

At first, communication among deaf children was difficult — each of them used their own home signs, and could not convey even basic messages to each other. However, as they interacted more, the teachers at the school noticed something strange and miraculous happening: not only were the students starting to be able to understand each other, but the teachers were losing the ability to understand the students — even if the teachers had studied each child’s home sign system. In other words, the deaf children were pooling together their home signs, and extracting a completely new, original language.

By the time this generation of children reached adulthood, they were able to communicate rapidly and fluently in their new language, which is now recognized as Nicaraguan Sign Language.

 

From Gestures to Language

Famous linguist Steven Pinker remarks that the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language is “the first and only time that we’ve actually seen a language being created out of thin air”. But exactly what happened to mark the transition from crude home signs to a fully-fledged language?

The most obvious advancement is in vocabulary: when the children were together, they went from using only a few different pantomimes indicating fundamental needs to using a wide variety of motions that indicated a variety of topics, both simple and complex. The crucial component to the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language, however, was not the addition of words, but rather the addition of syntax.

Syntax, one of the most fundamental aspects of human language, is the set of rules that transforms small things — individual words — into sentences that convey complex ideas. The idea here is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: small components combine into larger ones. For example, the words “secret”, “know”, and “I” mean very little in isolation, but a combination of the words — “I know the secret” — is loaded with semantics, and can carry a great deal of meaning.

Before Nicaraguan Sign Language developed, home signs could not combine into greater ideas; they were standalone gestures that could not be modified or expanded upon. But this changed after the children had attended schools for a few months. For example, to illustrate the concept of “rolling down”, a Nicaraguan Sign Language user will use two separate signs — one for “rolling” (a circular motion) and another one for “down” (a thrust of the hand).

They separate the basic components of the action — manner and direction — thus allowing users to rearrange the individual parts to convey other meanings, in the same way that words can be rearranged to make different sentences. This concept — arranging individual words to express an array of meanings — forms the crux of what syntax is all about.

LATG2_image_2
Managua is home to many rural communities. Before the school for the deaf opened, deaf children in these sparsely populated areas had very limited exposure to other deaf people. Image via Robert Picard

 

Humans’ Innate Capacity for Language

In the big picture, then, what does Nicaraguan Sign Language say about the nature vs. nurture debate on human beings’ capacity for language?

Remember: Nicaraguan sign language wasn’t taught or transmitted to these children in any way. It want influenced by any existing language — spoken or signed — and instead is a completely novel language, brought about by children whose previous linguistic repertoire was limited to unsystematic gestures. Still, however, Nicaraguan Sign Language developed into a language that shares a great deal in common with other languages. It’s able to express basic thoughts as well as complex concepts. It can be used to communicate, make jokes, relay stories, and tell lies. And it’s governed by syntax — individual gestures combining to create larger sentences.

Therefore, Nicaraguan Sign Language looks a whole lot like any other language, despite the fact that it developed in the absence of influence from any preexisting language. If language were a socially transmitted phenomenon, handed down to children by native speakers, it would be hard to explain why Nicaraguan Sign Language ended up sharing so many common features with other languages.

Rather, the existence of Nicaraguan Sign Language suggests humans have a natural, innate ability to create language, even in the most extenuating of circumstances. Indeed, Nicaraguan Sign Language shows us that when children — even those whose previous linguistic experience was limited to non-fluent gestures — interact in a communicative setting, they produce a living, dynamic language, which is remarkably similar to other languages of the world.

Thus, humans must have some kind of intrinsic predisposition to learn, use, and create language; our brains are hard-wired to understand syntax. This ability allows us not only to learn languages that we’re exposed to, but — as demonstrated by the deaf children in Nicaragua — create new ones when other ones are inaccessible to us.

Language is what makes us human: it connects us, giving us an effective, dynamic, and ever-evolving communicative system that is unparalleled in any other species. And while it might seem that different languages couldn’t be more different — especially to those of us language-lovers who are trying to learn a foreign language — it’s important to remember what Nicaraguan Sign Language shows us about language. Despite having different words (or signs) and rules, all languages, at their core, stem from the same basic and universal human instinct to communicate — an instinct so strong that it enables us to create a brand new language out of thin air.

Where do you weigh in on the nature vs. nurture debate? What else would you like to know about Nicaraguan Sign Language? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions.

About the Author


paul_thumbnailPaul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free language level tests and other resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

 

 

 

 

Languages Around the Globe will always be free. However there are expenses with keeping a website up and running and devoting time and energy to provide you with more, high quality content. LATG is supported by Patreon. Click below to become a patron and earn some cool stuff for your generosity. We’re currently working to make the website advertisement free for your convenience!Become an LATG Patron

  • Cres Garcia-Campbell

    This is a nice article, however I caution the writer in regard to the use of adjectives such as “crude” and “basic” to describe the “home signs” the Nicaraguan children used before their developement of formal or standardized signs. I do understand trying impress upon readers that the home signs were “raw” and non-standardized and that there may have been a variety of home signs for a single concept but I find it slightly condescending to the creators of those home signs to label them as such. Perhaps a better word choice to label the signs is “spontaneous”? As that is possibly more of how the children came up with their home signs and perhaps some of the home signs were included, by communal choice, into their official NSL lexicon. I myself was raised by a Deaf parent with his own Deaf siblings who also had their own “homemade” sign system. I recall having rich conversations as it was the first mode of communication that I was exposed to, I’d loathe to refer to it as cruse or basic…non-standardized perhaps would be ok. Eventually my father and his siblings were exposed to American Sign Language and that is the language they use now. I’d like the author to reconsider his labeling of the home signs and challenge him to search for a non-derogatory descriptor. Thank you for the great read!

    • Paul Mains

      I think this is a great point, Cres. I definitely agree with you that “non-standardized” is a much better descriptor, and I appreciate you pointing this out.

      I’d like to mention that the home signs in Nicaragua were different from what you’re describing, as they were between Deaf children and their hearing parents, rather than between two Deaf siblings, for example. Therefore, it may have been a bit different from what your father and his siblings developed (which sounds extremely interesting).

      I’ll think about how to change my vocabulary, and make the appropriate edits. Thank you again!

    • I think this is a great point, Cres. I definitely agree with you that “non-standardized” is a much better descriptor, and I appreciate you pointing this out.

      I’d like to mention that the home signs in Nicaragua were different from what you’re describing, as they were between Deaf children and their hearing parents, rather than between two Deaf siblings, for example. Therefore, it may have been a bit different from what your father and his siblings developed (which sounds extremely interesting).

      I’ll think about how to change my vocabulary, and make the appropriate edits. Thank you again!

  • Jacob B. Gardner

    “Still, however, Nicaraguan Sign Language developed into a language that shares a great deal in common with other languages. It’s able to express basic thoughts as well as complex concepts. It can be used to communicate, make jokes, relay stories, and tell lies. And it’s governed by syntax — individual gestures combining to create larger sentences.”

    That is the closest this article comes to describing the similarities between Nicaraguan Sign Language and other languages, and all those _similarities_ are pretty much just the basics of it being a language. So basically you’re saying “Look at this language! It’s a language! That makes it similar to all the other languages!”

    “Despite having different words (or signs) and rules, all languages, at their core, stem from the same basic and universal human instinct to communicate ”

    That’s not really representative of the nature side of the argument. Listen to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker and they talk about more than just a universal need to communicate. They talk about Universal Grammars and all the languages being only superficially different. Saying that languages have different words might fit into the superficial differences category, but different rules doesn’t.
    Also the nurture side of the argument isn’t arguing that we don’t have instincts, like the desire to communicate, or to learn, or even to learn languages, just that we are genetically programmed with all the details, or even the broad sweeping rules, of the things we learn.

    All in all a fairly interesting article, but it has a fairly obvious bias and doesn’t really give any arguments to support that bias

    • Thanks for the comment, Jacob! Really made me think. I think the important point, which I deviate from a bit in the last paragraph, is the fact that NSL developed to end up with syntax very similar to other signed languages, which *is* pretty remarkable given that there was no external stimulus. You’re right, NSL is not just a form of communication; it actually fits the bill of only being “superficially different” from other signed languages.

      That is, it ended up with the same syntactic rules and categories that are found in other languages — in that way, it *is* only superficially different from other languages — it is governed by more or less the same rules and processes, and the differences are only superficial (i.e., vocabulary).

      I would also argue that we should give more credit to the “basics of language” — the fact that syntax arose from nothing, *without instruction*, makes it striking. The authors of Science phrase this more eloquently: “properties [of language] can arise naturally as a product of language-learning mechanisms, even when they are not available in the surrounding environment.”

      Thank you again for the thought-provoking comment.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jacob! Really made me think. I think the important point, which I deviate from a bit in the last paragraph, is the fact that NSL developed to end up with syntax very similar to other signed languages, which *is* pretty remarkable given that there was no external stimulus. You’re right, NSL is not just a form of communication; it actually fits the bill of only being “superficially different” from other signed languages.

      That is, it ended up with the same syntactic rules and categories that are found in other languages — in that way, it *is* only superficially different from other languages — it is governed by more or less the same rules and processes, and the differences are only superficial (i.e., vocabulary).

      I would also argue that we should give more credit to the “basics of language” — the fact that syntax arose from nothing, *without instruction*, makes it striking. The authors of Science phrase this more eloquently: “properties [of language] can arise naturally as a product of language-learning mechanisms, even when they are not available in the surrounding environment.”

      Thank you again for the thought-provoking comment.

      • Dale Moore

        I agree with Jacob’s earlier comment. Have you compared NSL to Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language? ASBSL is an isolated sign language used in Israel that does not have what is called “Duality of Patterning”. The fact that every other language, as well as NSL, has individual building blocks of language that do not have meaning…phonemes, that when put together create the smallest unit of meaning…..Morphemes.

        ASBSL doesn’t have have this “Duality of Patterning.” Meaning each sign is holistic in nature and does not break down into individual blocks to be reused in other signs.

        This is a wild deviation from every other language studied, and ASBSL is bit older than NSL, though they were studied around roughly the same time.

        I’m no linguist, but I’m struck wondering why the Universal Grammar people don’t believe that maybe humans just have a limited capacity to organize thoughts for transmission. Some words mean an action, some words mean a thing, this is like a law of the universe…like gravity…it just is. Humans aren’t predisposed to obeying gravity. And there is only so many ways to put those 2 types of words in an order with some “connectors”. I believe humans have done a pretty good job of exploring every possible sequence.

  • Very interesting. I do volunteer work with deaf children who often grow up with little to know formal education and communicate mostly through home signs. I agree with @signlanguageuser:disqus, “spontaneous” and “raw” would be better descriptors. There are limitations with this communication style, but I have complex and engaging conversations on a daily basis using strictly “home signs”.

  • David Cooper

    Chomsky’s Universal Grammar idea has led to a lot of farce with ludicrous lists of proposed universals that aren’t universal, but at the root of it there is a very simple cause for the similarities. Thoughts have to have some kind of structure which links all their components together, and the pattern of those linkages has to be universal if the meanings of those thoughts are to be identical. The translation from the structure of thoughts to the structure of language opens up a lot of freedom to vary the order in which components are presented. The network of components that make up the though must be converted into a linear string capable of being spoken, and every time there’s a branch in the network-structured thought, it can be read into the linear string at a different position in the string in different languages and it can be read in different directions too. In Japanese, for example, branches are generally read in the opposite direction to the way they are in English (outward for English, and inwards for Japanese: that man who works in the garage next to your house –> your house-beside garage-in works that man. Japanese reads relative clauses inwards towards the core idea of the thought, but English starts at the core and inserts the branch reading it outwards). The only rules behind any “universal grammar” are that the network ideas must be systematically converted into linear strings and then back again when they reach the person receiving the linear string. This is easy to prove, because all the silly rules proposed by Chomsky and his fans (if they ever manage to find any that all languages currently happen to conform to) can be disproved by creating artificial languages which break those rules and which can be used perfectly easily by people despite not being specifically pre-programmed genetically to handle those constructions. There should be no surprise whatsoever that when a langauge is created from scratch by a community which lacks any model to follow will come up with something similar to existing languages because existing languages are all converting from the same thought structures into linear strings and there aren’t all that many practical ways of carrying out that task – doing it in weird ways that jump backwards and forwards out of different branches in more random ways would be much harder to process and would not catch on, so everything settles on reasonably sensible, efficient ways of working.