For years, linguists have been studying thousands of languages from manuscripts and inscriptions on rocks and other materials. They have been trying to understand what the first language was, how it came to being, and most importantly, how it evolved into the numerous languages that we have today. If only they could study a language right from its birth, they might then be able to find the answers. Well, the Nicaraguan Sign Language provided linguists with one such opportunity. The first speakers of the language are still alive, enabling linguists to study the language and its evolution right from its birth.
Since 1977, the deaf children of Nicaragua have been developing a sign language that has provided experts with unique insights on the evolution of human languages.
The Nicaraguan Sign Language, or more commonly known as “NSL”, is a sign language that was developed, spontaneously by a group of deaf children in Nicaragua. The language was developed in the 1970s and gained momentum in the 1980s. The language has gained much popularity in the linguistic world because it presents linguists with an extraordinary opportunity to study a language right from its birth. Linguists are getting access to a language where they can observe its birth and development right in front of their eyes.
Some researchers are in disagreement as to whether the Nicaraguan Sign Language can be considered as a full-fledged language. They are concerned with the stage of development the sign language is currently in, and whether that stage defines a full-fledged language.
Judy Kegl, an American Sign Language linguist from MIT, believes that at the stage when the deaf developed the gesture-based communication medium, it gave young children the impression that their input was a language that needs to be acquired. The first generation of young children acquired the language as any human would acquire any other language. The changes that came after that are expected as part of the historical changes.
Linguists across the world consider the Nicaraguan Sign Language, or NSL, as an important test case because the language was developed entirely in isolation. Interestingly, the first “speakers” of the language are still alive.
As we have mentioned above, the Nicaraguan Sign Language has provided linguists with an opportunity to watch the workings and development of a language right from its birth. This is the first language in the world where the first speakers are still alive.
Prior to the 1970s, the deaf people in Nicaragua used to stay in their homes and never had enough contact with each other. But with the opening of a vocational school in 1981, the deaf children were presented with an opportunity to interact with each other. These children at the school never learned any specific sign language. They started interacting with each other and developed their own system of signs to get their messages across.
In the beginning, the signs were quite crude. But as more and more children began adopting the language, the signs became more polished. This ultimately resulted in a sophisticated and complex sign language that we know today as the Nicaraguan Sign Language. The language has all the traits of both known spoken and sign languages.
One key trait that the linguists identified in the sign language was the children adopted “discreteness” in their signs. This means that they broke down large containers of information into small manageable packages.
Linguists around the world have spent years trying to understand how languages began and how they developed to their current stage. Some believe that our brains are hardwired to develop and acquire languages while others believe that language is something that is just culturally transmitted. Now, for the first time, linguists have come face to face with a language that they can study from its birth. Dr. Ann Senghas of Columbia University says, “When people study historical linguistics to try to figure out how languages are born they are usually looking at old historical data, like scratches on rocks. This is the first time we have had the opportunity to observe it in action because the originators are still alive.”
When linguists started examining this unique sign language closely, they discovered that the children who developed the language used to break down complex ideas into small pieces. This is something that is common to all known languages. To confirm this, the researchers carried out a simple experiment.
The researchers showed the Nicaraguan deaf children a cartoon of a cat wobbling down a hill after he ate a bowling ball. The children were then asked to describe what they had seen in their sign language. Deaf students who were among the first to have created the language used a single gesture to describe both “wobbling” and “going down the hill.” This was similar to what a speaking human would have used if asked to explain the cartoon in sign language. But when the later generations of students were asked the same, they used different signs to depict “wobbling” and “going down the hill.” This is one of the most important features of an abstract language – the ability to break down information into small bits and then express it.
This provided linguists with compelling evidence that humans have an innate ability to develop languages. Even without being taught, humans have the ability to develop their own language.
This simple experiment made researchers discover an important insight as to how humans develop their languages. Dr. Senghas says, “If they were just clever at learning, they would have learned to do it the way they had seen it being done. But that isn’t what they did; they ended up acquiring something different. They ended up breaking down the gestures into something they could build a language out of.”
This provided researchers with convincing evidence that humans are hard-wired with the ability to develop language in this way. In simpler words, children have the ability to break down the information they receive into small chunks. They then tie those chunks together into a single string forming multiple sentences with a wide range of meanings.
Dr. Senghas further explains, “We lose the ability to break information into discrete elements as we age. It is not just that children can do it, but adults can’t do it.” Moreover, this study does not explicitly prove that languages are hard-wired into our brains. But it suggests that the fundamentals of language are part of our innate nature. This means that we do not have any grammar or a specific language in our heads when we are born, but we do have certain language learning abilities. But since children’s language in most cases ends up exactly like their parent’s language, it is very difficult to pinpoint what their own minds added to the mixture. But now, researchers have the Nicaraguan Sign Language on which to conduct such research.