Deaf children create new language

Children with hearing disabilities, thrown together in a school in Nicaragua without any type of formal instruction, have invented their own sophisticated and evolving sign language, researchers report.

    Until 1977, there were no special needs schools in Nicaragua

    Their observations show that children, not adults, are key
    to the evolution and development of language, the researchers reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

    "It is the birth of a language," said Ann Senghas of
    Columbia University's Barnard College, who led the study.

    The living laboratory of up to 1000 children at a school
    in Managua was made possible because of the neglect of deaf
    people before the 1970s, a time of political and social turmoil
    in Nicaragua. 

    Deaf children were isolated and almost never learned formal
    sign language, Senghas and her international team of
    collaborators said.

    "They didn't let them go out and socialise. You meet deaf
    people who are 50 and they really can't communicate," she said.

    New language

    But in 1977, a school for special education opened in
    Managua, followed four years later by a vocational school. For the first time, deaf children could meet and learn together,
    and could stay together as they grew up.

    No one was there to teach them formal sign language, so
    they made up their own.

    "We can really see how a new language emerges"

    Psycholinguist Ann Senghas,
    Columbia University

    "The founding cohort of children started out with gesture,"
    Senghas, a psycholinguist, said in a telephone interview.

    Her team reports specifically on how the children described
    motion - in one case, a ball rolling down a hill.

    "They were doing rolling-down movement [with their hands],
    but what happened was that children who were around in the
    early '80s looked at that and took as input but produced
    something very different," Senghas said.     

    "They broke it down into these little elements like a roll
    element and a down element and an up element."

    In spoken languages these elements can be words, or smaller
    modifiers of words, tones or even word order. They are the
    building blocks of language.

    More than gestures

    In the sign language, they were hand motions, but far
    different from mere gestures.

    "They broke it down into bricks and they ended up with
    elements that you never see alone with gesture. They could
    assemble these into an infinite number of elements. They had a language," Senghas said.

    The founding children, now adults in their 30s, have a
    different version of the sign language than the younger members of the community.

    "They are a living record of the earlier stages of the
    language," she said.

    "It is the first time anyone has been able to study a
    language this early. We can really see how a new language
    emerges."

    Own rules

    And, it seems, it is children who drive the evolution of
    language. "It is the child learners who are injecting the
    learning, the structure into the language," Senghas said.

    This process can be seen to a degree when a small child
    learns to talk and "breaks" the rules of grammar.

    "She'll start out trying to make her own rules and as she
    ages she'll become more like people in her environment,"
    Senghas said.

    "By the time she is an adult, she'll talk a lot like you.
    But not exactly like you."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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