Deaf kids establish own sign language

Children learn their native language with remarkable ease. This feat has inspired a long-running scientific debate about whether youngsters innately grasp underlying linguistic rules, or grammar, without having to learn them.

In a finding sure to fuel this argument, two psychologists report that successive groups of deaf kids attending a pair of Nicaraguan schools invented their own full-fledged sign language in less than 2 decades.

“Sequential [groups] of interacting children aged 10 and younger collectively possess the capacity not only to learn, but also to create language,” the researchers conclude in the July Psychological Science.

Ann Senghas of Barnard College in New York City and Marie Coppola of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) studied videotaped communications of 24 deaf individuals, ages 7 to 32, who had used what is now formally called Nicaraguan Sign Language for at least 4 years.

Participants now attend, or used to attend, either of two schools for the deaf in Managua. The first school opened in 1977, and the second in 1980. The students all had hearing parents, and none knew any signing deaf adults. Teachers provided instruction only in lip-reading and in speaking Spanish, with little success. Apparently in response, the students independently developed the hand signing that evolved into Nicaraguan Sign Language.

The grammatical seeds of the deaf children’s home-grown language came from hand motions they already practiced, such as informal gestures used at home and at school, Senghas and Coppola assert. Around 1983, they continue, new signers elaborated on available gestures and came up with new ones, creating a more diversified grammar.

The language’s evolution at the schools appears in the increasing complexity of grammatically meaningful hand motions. Signers who started school after 1983 modified signs more often and in more intricate ways than did those who began school before 1983. This difference was most pronounced for those first exposed to sign language before age 7, when most language-learning occurs. Moreover, young signers in the post-1983 group signed more fluently and more rapidly than their pre-1983 counterparts.

These findings support the view of some linguists that children can create so-called creole languages from simpler, nongrammatical tongues used between speakers of different languages. They also fit with observations of some researchers, such as Rochester’s Elissa L. Newport, who have found that individual deaf kids generate complex sign language from the few simple signs their hearing parents use.

“The Nicaraguan study shows how language emerges from basic learning mechanisms,” says Jenny R. Saffran of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, she adds, it remains unclear whether those learning mechanisms reflect inborn grammatical information (SN: 5/3/97, p. 276).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.