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Researchers Document and Nurture Development of a Language:Rare Opportunity Presented to Witness Human Capacity for Communication
Newark, N.J. -- When Judy Shepard-Kegl was asked by the Nicaraguan government in 1985 to assist with the development of educational programs for deaf children, she had no idea she actually would be given the opportunity to witness and document the birth of a language.
A linguist at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, Shepard-Kegl had assumed the country had a well developed sign language. But when she arrived in Nicaragua, what she found instead was a group of deaf children who were in the process of developing a sign language of their own. The country, it turned out, had no formal sign language or tradition of signing.
"This is the first time a spoken or signed language has been documented while it was coming into being," says Shepard-Kegl, who over the last decade has been working with deaf individuals in Nicaragua as they develop and teach this newly emerged signed language. This summer, Shepard-Kegl hopes to join her husband, James Shepard-Kegl, in Nicaragua to assist with running a school for the deaf they helped to start.
Through her experiences, Shepard-Kegl and the others who have helped her have had the rare opportunity to study just how deeply ingrained is the human capacity for language. Linguists long have theorized that language, like seeing, is an innate human trait that only needs to be stimulated to gain expression. Linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who first put forth the theory in the 1960s, argues that even if input is minimal, the human trait for language is so strong, it will manifest itself, says Shepard-Kegl. That is exactly what she found.
Prior to the educational reforms of the Sandinistas government, deaf children remained isolated -- since few schools existed even for hearing children. With congenital forms of deafness being rare in Nicaragua, deaf children had little, if any, contact with other deaf people. Their communication was limited to hearing family members and neighbors using "home signs," a made-up system of gestures. Once the Sandinistas started developing schools, however, groups of deaf children were brought together for the first time, and a language began to develop.
Shepard-Kegl's first arrival in the country was at a vocational school called Villa Libertad in Managua which had numerous deaf children as students, including a group of teenage girls. The deaf students attended classes taught by hearing teachers who had no knowledge of sign language. The gestures being used by the teenage girls aroused the curiosity of the school staff, who asked Shepard-Kegl to interpret what they meant, so she began to document and record their signs. The signs the girls had developed were based on the physical characteristics of objects and people, rather than on any alphabet, and was a rather crude, or a "pidgin," form of language. Yet when Shepard-Kegl began working with a younger group of deaf children, she discovered a much richer, more complex and coherent language.
That finding, however, was not a surprise, she says. Linguists have theorized that for language to develop fully, appropriate stimuli need to occur during the peak learning years before puberty, explains Shepard-Kegl. "After that, the window closes," she says.
What has been seen in Nicaragua provides proof for that theory. The older students who entered school late in their teens failed to achieve the level of fluency that was obtained by the younger children who gained exposure to one another and signing at an earlier age, says Shepard-Kegl.
From their work in Managua, Shepard-Kegl and her husband went on to investigate other areas of the country to determine if there were deaf children who had remained isolated from language and education. On the Atlantic coast, near the area of Bluefields, a city of about 34,000 people, they discovered 15 deaf children and set to work to establish a school. The school is a joint project of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project (NSLP), which James Shepard-Kegl directs; Los Pipitos, a Nicaraguan parents' advocacy group; and ANSNIC, Nicaragua's first association for the deaf. Support for the school largely has come from the Shepard-Kegls' own funds and several small donations.
Children in the school are taught by deaf teachers, many of whom were the first set of students to begin developing a sign language. While it remains unusual in the United States for deaf children to be taught solely by deaf teachers, in Nicaragua the deaf population is seeking to assume leadership in this area, says Shepard-Kegl. They are the ones who are writing grant proposals, coordinating programs and monitoring the school in Bluefields, and one of the early language pioneers now also is running for election as Minster of Disabilities, adds Shepard-Kegl.
During the early years of the project, Shepard-Kegl explains she specifically refrained from applying for grants or widely publicizing her research because she was concerned bringing attention to the project could threaten development of the indigenous language.
"My greatest fear, and the reason I didn't publish, was that it would have been so easy for people to come down and teach the children ASL (American Sign Language), but that would have robbed the country of a sign language of its own, a language that is rooted in its culture," says Shepard-Kegl. "It would have been like someone coming here and saying, `Now, we're all going to speak Russian.'"
Now that the language has developed and a dictionary is soon to be printed by the Swedish Association for the Deaf, Shepard-Kegl hopes to draw together the resources necessary to ensure no children in the country remain without a language. The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $366,856 three-year grant to help fund the Shepard-Kegl's work in Nicaragua. In addition to assisting with the school, Judy Shepard-Kegl has undertaken identifying the entire deaf population of Nicaragua, estimated at about 3,300, and plans to record what this population looks like at this early emergent stage of language development. Other projects include development of a video library for deaf children, and the printing of children books in Sign Writing, a system by which the hand gestures of signing are converted into symbolic representations. The work is plentiful and something which Shepard-Kegl has had to weave into her other responsibilities, including caring for her two adopted Nicaraguan children. But for her there is no choice.
"Everybody who has worked on this project has paid out of pocket and done so at personal sacrifice," she says "But what can be more precious than the gift of watching language bubble up out of a child and knowing you were in some way, however indirect, partially responsible. All parents know this almost miraculous experience, but we get to see it happen on a community-wide, country-wide scale and it never fails to fascinate us."