Among the changes that occurred following the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, in 1979, the most unexpected was perhaps the birth of a new language. Nicaraguan Sign Language is the only spontaneously created language that has been studied and observed from the very beginning.
Immediately after the Revolutionseveral programs were put in place with the intention of promote literacy and the ability to read Spanish. As a result, a school for the education of deaf children, in the capital Managua; according to experts it was the first time in the history of the country in which such a large group of deaf children was brought together.
The children, aged between four and sixteen, had had no experience with sign language at all, except for the short gestures they used to communicate with family members at home. But soon – during the 1980s – as deaf children were taught how to speak and read Spanish in the classroom, outside of school they began to develop their own method of communicationbased on signs.
All languages have one grammar it’s a syntax, but the Managua school children had no idea how the language worked, as they had been isolated from any form of language, written or spoken, throughout their lives; and although the older children had more life experience, the development of the new language it was mainly driven by younger children.
“As we get older, our speech instincts tend to diminish,” explains James Shepard-Kegl, co-director of the NSL project (Nicaraguan Sign Language). “Many of the older kids didn’t generate grammar rules like the toddlers. They copied the grammar created by younger children.”
It is not clear how many individuals are required to develop a new language spontaneously, or how many of these must be children, but linguistic scholars agree that consider this phenomenon to be extremely unique is noteworthy.
[Credit: Susan Meisalas/Magnum Photos]