Origin of Language - History - Genesis of Nicaraguan Sign Language

Genesis of Nicaraguan Sign Language

Beginning in 1979, the recently installed Nicaraguan government initiated the country's first widespread effort to educate deaf children. Prior to this there was no deaf community in the country. A center for special education established a program initially attended by 50 young deaf children. By 1983 the center had 400 students. The center did not have access to teaching facilities of any of the sign languages that are used around the world; consequently, the children were not taught any sign language. The language program instead emphasized spoken Spanish and lipreading, and the use of signs by teachers limited to fingerspelling (using simple signs to sign the alphabet). The program achieved little success, with most students failing to grasp the concept of Spanish words.

The first children who arrived at the center came with only a few crude gestural signs developed within their own families. However, when the children were placed together for the first time they began to build on one another's signs. As more and younger children joined, the language became more complex. The children's teachers, who were having limited success at communicating with their students, watched in awe as the children began communicating amongst themselves.

Later the Nicaraguan government solicited help from Judy Kegl, an American sign-language expert at Northeastern University. As Kegl and other researchers began to analyze the language, they noticed that the younger children had taken the pidgin-like form of the older children to a higher level of complexity, with verb agreement and other conventions of grammar.

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