How Nicaraguan Sign Language Is Solving Linguistic Mysteries

In 1979, when the Somoza Regime of Nicaragua was overthrown, the new government embarked on what’s been referred to as a ‘literacy crusade,’ in which various initiatives were implemented to promote reading in Spanish. One such initiative was the creation of the Melania Morales Special Education Center, the first public school for deaf education in Nicaragua. Before the school’s opening, deaf people had been left to their own devices, relying on simple gestures and homemade signs to communicate with family and friends.

The initial focus of the new school, as well as the very few private Nicaraguan clinics for the deaf, was teaching Spanish and lipreading. Sign language was viewed as completely foreign or otherwise regarded with disdain. Deaf people have, however, been shown to learn sign languages much more effectively than lipreading or oral speaking. This, combined with the school’s limited resources, caused the initial efforts of Melania Morales to fall flat. While students struggled to understand what was being taught in their classes, though, something incredible began to take place. Brought into contact with other deaf children for the first time, the students began to create their own language.

A Linguistic Goldmine

The Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, otherwise known as linguistic relativity, is the somewhat controversial notion that the structure of a language determines the way that a speaker perceives the world and categorizes experience.

It has been suggested, for example, that speaking a language in which nouns are gendered may affect cognitive processes. In one study, researchers came up with a list of twenty-four objects that have different genders in Spanish and German, and then asked speakers of the two languages to describe those objects. Across the board, the gender of the objects seemed to influence the adjectives chosen. In German, for example, ‘key’ is a masculine word, while in Spanish it’s a feminine word. German speakers tended to describe keys using words like ‘hard,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘jagged,’ ‘metal,’ and ‘useful,’ while Spanish speakers tended to describe them as ‘golden,’ ‘intricate,’ ‘little,’ ‘lovely,’ and ‘tiny.’ Similarly, when asked to describe a bridge (feminine in German, masculine in Spanish), Germans used words like ‘beautiful,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘fragile,’ ‘pretty,’ and ‘slender,’ while Spanish-speakers used words like ‘big,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘strong,’ ‘sturdy,’ and ‘towering.’

The problem with studies like the one above, however, is that it’s hard to control for the influence of external factors on linguistic habits. Aside from the languages they speak, German speakers and Spanish speakers differ from one another in innumerable ways which may influence the how they think and speak. With so many variables at play, it’s hard to be sure of the validity of such experiments.

In this respect, Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) is quite unique. It has been learned by successive waves of children from the same culture, all of whom began to learn at about the same age. This makes it a gold mine for linguists trying to test theories where research has traditionally been plagued by an over-abundance of variables, including the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis and the Universal Grammar theory.

As Nicaraguan Sign Language Develops, So Does Its Speakers’ Spatial Awareness

In the first version of Nicaraguan Sign Language, children hadn’t yet settled on definitive signs for ‘right’ and ‘left,’ or the type of rule common to sign languages that states ‘right’ and ‘left’ should be expressed from the perspective of the speaker, rather than the person being spoken to. In the first iteration of NSL, directionality was thus rather ambiguous.

By the 1980s, though, more clear terminology had been developed, and in 2002, researchers performed a study to compare the spatial awareness abilities of both groups of NSL speakers. Subjects were led into a room with a single red wall. A researcher indicated a corner where a token had been hidden, and subjects were then blindfolded and spun around. When the blindfold was removed, they were asked to indicate where the hidden token was. The group of adults that had learned the later version of NSL consistently outperformed the group that had learned the version in which directional signs were not fully developed. And because most factors other than language had been controlled for, researchers were able to more definitively claim that it was the iteration of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which their subjects had learned that likely caused the discrepancy in test results.

Researcher Jennie Pyers, who led the spatial awareness study, was quick to state that this is not proof for the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, though. Rather than language influencing how speakers perceive the world, Pyers’ argues that her results reveal more about “those aspects of human cognition that are dependent on acquiring a language, any language.” The spatial awareness tests she performs tap into a set of skills that “crucially depends on language…and this relationship between language and spatial cognition should hold true for speakers of all languages.”

Other research suggests that it might. One aboriginal tribe in north Queensland, Australia, known as the Guugu Yimithirr, uses cardinal directions to relay spatial information. Thus, rather than saying, “can you pass me the cup on your left,” they might say, “can you pass me the cup to the north-east?” Guugu Yimithirr children seem to develop a sort of internal compass beginning at the time they begin to acquire speech, and ultimately, the Guugu Yimithirr are amongst the most directionally gifted people on earth, both in terms of navigational ability and spatial memory.

What Does the Future Hold?

The primary issue that many have taken with the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis is that its conclusions are both too lofty and too forbidding. Wharf assumed that language puts constraints on our minds, preventing us from being able to conceptualize things that we do not have specific words for. As shown by speakers of NSL, having a linguistic designation for something may improve our cognitive abilities in certain arenas (i.e. having words for left and right makes us more spatially aware), but this has little to do with our ability to conceptualize or understand those concepts. After all, just a few years after its conception, NSL speakers conceptualized the words for ‘right’ and ‘left’ and promptly added them to their vocabulary.

But this is precisely why Nicaraguan Sign Language is so amazing. Though it is not the only language of its kind (for example, in Jim Crow-era Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of pedagogically isolated African-American deaf schools also developed sign languages of their own), it is perhaps the only language ever to have been so closely documented and studied from its inception, with many of its first-generation speakers still living today. NSL differs from a pidgin or a Creole in that it did not emerge through contact between two different languages or cultures, but rather was created, in a sense, out of thin air. As a result, this language offers us a unique opportunity to study the creation and development of languages, and even to begin to answer some of linguistics’ most difficult questions.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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