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!
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.
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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
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