Conversations against all odds: the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language by Marieke Schouwstra

Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell

...languages don’t like to exist in isolation; they like to be learned by new learners, and used in conversations.
In my previous piece  for A Year of Conversation, I described the work that I do as an evolutionary linguist: I run experiments in which participants invent new manual languages by improvising gestures to communicate with each other. 
Seeing my participants invent new manual languages in the laboratory has made me realise how deep the human urge to communicate is. But the creation of a language is not just an odd phenomenon that I observe in the laboratory: new languages are invented in the real world too. There are cases where new spoken languages are invented, like for example Russenorsk, a language that existed in the 18th and 19th century when Russian traders and Norwegian fishermen often interacted. Another example is the language consisting of manual gestures that was spontaneously created by workers of a sawmill in British Columbia: due to the noise level in the mill, the sawyers at work could not use spoken language, and they invented manual signs to share information, not only about the technical aspects of their work, but also about personal issues. 
Both Russenorsk and the sawmill sign language are examples of conversation taking place in unlikely circumstances. They are intriguing and informative: they show how people have the urge to overcome communicative challenges to express what is on their minds. And if there isn’t a system in place that helps them do that, they will simply create such a system. 
Sometimes, however, the hurdles on the way to successful communication seem almost impossible to overcome. For example, when a deaf child is born in a hearing family, and the family members don’t know any sign languages, the child will grow up without getting linguistic input. And because using a language is essential for learning and developing, this could be especially damaging. But, these situations, like the examples above, will not simply end in a communicative void. Children in these situations will typically develop self-invented sign systems that they use with their family members to communicate. These homesign systems, can be very clever, and the children using them might be able to communicate a lot, but they have their limitations: homesigners are not as free to express what they want to as speakers of conventional languages.  
Homesign is a relatively isolated phenomenon: each homesign system is used by, at most, a handful of family members. And languages don’t like to exist in isolation; they like to be learned by new learners, and used in conversations. Just how powerful learning and interaction are is shown in the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Nowadays, NSL is an officially recognised language in Nicaragua. Like many other sign languages, it has a rich set of grammatical rules (very much like spoken languages do). What is special about NSL is that this language was born not too long ago, in the 1970’s, and that its development was documented by anthropologists and linguists. 
Just like in many other countries a few decades ago, there weren’t many facilities for deaf people in Nicaragua. Only when the deaf institute in Managua was extended in the late 1970’s, structural schooling was offered to deaf children. The curriculum was focused on lip reading and some finger spelling. Both lip reading and finger spelling are not proper replacements for a language, and teaching in this way must have been a frustrating experience: it didn’t seem very successful. At the time it wasn’t generally recognised that sign languages are a proper replacement for spoken languages, and the teaching personnel in the school (all hearing individuals) did not encourage the use of manual signs. They did notice that the pupils were ‘waving their hands about’ but they tended to do this off as pure pantomime. What they did not realise was what they actually witnessed was the birth of a new language. 
During the breaks, and before and after school, the children in the school had conversations with each other. What they used to do this were the signs from their respective homesign systems. Because these were all home-grown individual systems, communication wasn’t fluent initially. Slowly but surely, however, the manual signs started to develop into a consistent system, recognised and shared by everyone. It became a common good, and new children coming into the school started to learn these signs, and the system changed and adapted, and became more and more fine-grained and successful. More and more language-like. 
When linguists learnt about this development they started to document the system, and they have been able to map out in quite some detail how the grammatical features of the language emerged. Observing these details interests me as a linguist. But at the same time the story of Nicaraguan deaf children creating a language is a story of hope. It shows that in the end, people like to connect and share their thoughts. Even when all odds are against them. 
(The story of Nicaraguan Sign Language is a beautiful story. And it is nice to close on a positive note about humans in general, but there is one more thing I’d like to say. Deaf people all over the world face a considerable amount of barriers and issues in their daily lives. Also in the UK. Have a look at to see what these are, and what we as a society can do to make things a little bit easier.)
Dr Marieke Schouwstra is a linguist at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

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