Professor’s research investigates new language in Nicaragua

By Daniel Gilbert

Researchers from the University are studying a new language that is emerging in Nicaragua without ever hearing a single word of it.

A developing community of deaf persons in the Central American country created a common sign language that has helped establish a shared culture that did not exist 20 years ago. Before then, deaf Nicaraguans primarily stayed at home and interacted with family members via their own personal systems of communication. But in the early 1980s, the Melania Morales School for Special Education in the capital city of Managua became more widely available to deaf Nicaraguans, making the study and standardization of the language a possibility.

The first academic to study the new sign language was professor Ann Senghas of Columbia University, who began collecting data after arriving in Managua in 1985. Senghas and her team charted the language’s progress among those within the school over a certain period of time.

As a research assistant for Senghas, Marie Coppola, a post-doctorate in residence at the University, began to study the deaf in Nicaragua. Coppola, who had studied cognitive science at MIT, grew up a hearing child raised by deaf parents. In writing her dissertation, Coppola, in examining three individuals—ages 9, 15, and 24—analyzed the human ability to develop language skills in relative isolation.

“Sign language in Nicaragua is more or less standardized at this point,” Coppola said. “One deaf Nicaraguan can communicate reasonably effectively with another through a series of mutually understood gestures.” Coppola, fluent herself in American Sign Language (ASL), added that a Nicaraguan would have great difficulty communicating with someone using ASL.

Coppola is currently working on a project with University psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow that examines home-signers in Nicaragua. Goldin-Meadow, whose research has been recently featured in The Economist, has studied the development of gestures in the home among U.S. children ages before they learn ASL. Her newest book, The Resilience of Language, published in 2003, explores the results of some 30 years of research conducted on deaf children in America, and a comparative study with children in Taiwan.

“I chose China because of the apparent cultural differences from the United States,” Goldin-Meadow said. Goldin-Meadow’s research has instead revealed a surprising lack of differences in the ways in which children sign.

Though there has been some speculation that home-signing between Americans and the Chinese differs more significantly from similar practices among the Spanish and Turkish, Goldin-Meadow maintains that it is yet too early to make any conclusions regarding such differences.

Though Nicaragua is not the only country that possesses an emerging language, it represents a special opportunity for researches like Goldin-Meadow and Coppola to obtain data documenting the progression of the language from its inception. “The key is that we got in early,” said Coppola of the advantage of studying the deaf in Nicaragua.

The Nicaraguan case also holds the advantage of having no pressure exerted on the deaf to speak their native language, researchers said, as there is in the U.S. for deaf children to learn English.

“The tradition of oral education in America, common in households of deaf children born to hearing parents, can have the effect of stunting the child’s linguistic development,” Goldin-Meadow said. “In most cases, children educated in this way end up language-less.”

Goldin-Meadow believes that studying the deaf also affords a unique chance to learn about language because deaf children don’t receive external input the way that normal children do. “[Studying the deaf] is the only way to reveal the most robust parts of language,” she said.