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Kids creating a new sign language are shaping it as they learn

In example A, a Spanish-speaker is describing how a cat, having swallowed a bowling ball, proceeds rapidly down a steep street in a wobbling, rolling manner. As he tells the last part of the story, he wiggles his fingers while moving his hand to the right. The type of motion the cat makes and the path the cat follows are expressed together in a single movement. In example B, a young signer is describing the same event in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Here the type of motion and path are expressed in two separate signs assembled into a sequence: first a circular motion and then a movement to the right. Video Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

At a school in Managua, Nicaragua, deaf children have been creating a sign language all their own over the last three decades. "Nicaraguan Sign Language," or "NSL," began with pantomime-like gestures. Each time new young people learn NSL, they add to it, making it more complex.

Now, according to Ann Senghas of Barnard College of Columbia University, NSL has become a true language. It follows many of the basic rules common to other languages that have existed for many times longer than NSL has.

In a study published in the 17 September 2004 issue of the journal Science, Senghas and her colleagues show that kids seem to have a natural tendency to transform a simple form of communication into language as they learn it. She doesn't think they do this consciously; it's just part of how the human brain learns.

Before the 1970s, most deaf people in Nicaragua stayed at home and had little contact with each other. The Nicaraguan government created a new elementary school offering special education in Managua in 1977and a school for adolescents in 1981.

Approximately 50 deaf students enrolled the first year, and the number grew to over 200 by 1981. No one taught the children to sign, but as soon as they were together they began to develop a system of gestures for communicating with each other, both in and out of school. Today there are approximately 800 deaf signers of NSL, ranging from four to 45 years old.

Deaf children in Managua, Nicaragua, using Nicaraguan Sign Language. Image courtesy of Ann Senghas.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

In all languages, ideas get broken down into specific words. But, there are some ideas that you could also express with a single gesture, such as rolling down a hill.

How would you use your hands to show something rolling down a hill if you didn't know a sign language? Give it a try. You probably moved your hand in circles along a downward path.

In the study, participants from different age groups that had learned NSL and hearing participants that spoke Spanish watched a cartoon in which a cat swallows a bowling ball and then wobbles down a steep road. Then, they told the story in their language.

The younger signers used two different signs for "wobbling" and "down." In contrast, the older signers -- who still use the simpler, early form of NSL -- used a single hand gesture, probably somewhat like the one you came up with yourself.

The researchers concluded that as each new group of children has learned NSL, they've made it even more language-like, with gestures representing individual words.

"It's an unusual community, sort of upside-down, in the sense that the children lead the way. The children are the most fluent users of the language, not the older adults," Senghas said.

It's not just these children in Nicaragua that play such an important role in shaping their language. Senghas thinks kids have helped all languages evolve over time, just by learning them.


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