New Sign Language We consider a new language invented by deaf children in Nicaragua, and how scientists are able to see the language evolving.

New Sign Language

New Sign Language

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

We consider a new language invented by deaf children in Nicaragua, and how scientists are able to see the language evolving.


Ann Senghas, director, Language Acquisition and Development Laboratory. Assistant professor of psychology, Barnard College, Columbia University.

JOE PALCA, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca, sitting in for Ira Flatow.

In the late 1970s, a change in the education system in Nicaragua led to the development of a new language. Instead of sending deaf children to local schools, the government opened a special school for the deaf in Managua. Within a few years, the children began inventing a new language, a sign language. This wasn't really a case of mimicking gestures they saw speaking people make; this was a true language. Like all other languages, it has simple elements that are combined together, according to specific rules, to express complex concepts.

We start this hour with a look at how a language is born. So give us a call. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255; that's 1 (800) 989-TALK. And if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site at, where you'll find links to our topic.

Now let me introduce our guest. Ann Senghas is the director of the Language Acquisition and Development Laboratory and an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York, New York. She's the author of a paper in this week's Science magazine describing the new language. She joins me today from the studio of member station WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Senghas.

Dr. ANN SENGHAS (Director, Language Acquisition and Development Laboratory): Thanks, Joe. I'm glad to be here.

PALCA: So, you know, the first question I want to ask you about this language is: How did people first recognize that there was a language emerging at all? I mean, who was the first to figure that out?

Dr. SENGHAS: Well, the first people to notice this were teachers and administrators who were working in these programs for special education. They noticed that the deaf kids were doing more than just mimicking things and pantomiming, that they were starting to communicate in a way that teachers could no longer understand. And they were wondering, you know, `How are we going to start communicating with these kids? How can we work with these kids?' So they contacted some linguists, some American linguists, who were working in other languages in Nicaragua, and that led to Judy Kegl, a linguist at the University of Southern Maine. She came down, and I joined her team in 1989. So she first went down in '86. I first arrived in Nicaragua in 1990, and we've been documenting the progress of this language ever since.

PALCA: So explain what the difference is between a sign language, where you have, you know, specific symbols or basic building blocks, and a series of gestures? How do those--how does an observer see that difference?

Dr. SENGHAS: Well, there are different features that we see in languages all around the world, both signed and spoken. One of those hallmarks is that languages are made up of building blocks, small units that can build up into larger constructions and larger constructions. It's kind of like building with bricks. So in English, we have sounds that are put together to form words, and those can be put together to form an infinite number of sentences. All languages have these small kinds of units that get built up.

Gestures and other kinds of representations like painting and things that can also be very expressive--they aren't built up of units in the same way. They're more holistic and they adopt their structure from the things that they're representing. They mimic the world in a certain way. So in gesture, things that happen together are gestured together at the same time, but in languages, things that happen at the same time or happen together, those aren't necessarily going to be produced at the same time; they're going to be produced in some sequence that's going to be determined by the rules of the particular language that you're using.

PALCA: So you were giving an example of your paper--of a ball rolling down a hill or a ball wobbling on a table or something. How would that work?

Dr. SENGHAS: That's right. Well, we were--we started probing into this language by using motion events, and they're a useful tool because those are events in which a lot of things happen at the same time. In any motion event you're going to have some kind of manner of movement and some path of movement. So, for example, when a cat rolls down a hill or a ball rolls down a hill, the rolling and the downness, those all happen at the same time. So...

PALCA: I'm sorry, I have to interrupt, because I just--the idea of a cat rolling down a hill sort of caught my attention, and does--is that...

Dr. SENGHAS: Yeah. I've used that example because that's actually one of the cartoons that we use.

PALCA: Really?

Dr. SENGHAS: One way that we work with these kids is that we show them interesting things and we ask everyone to say the same thing, and that way we can see how different people...


Dr. SENGHAS: ...will describe the same events and...

PALCA: I got it. So that's why the cat...

Dr. SENGHAS: ...sort of track changes in their language.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. SENGHAS: So we have a cartoon--it's actually a Tweety and Sylvester cartoon in which Sylvester is chasing after Tweety, and so Tweety throws a bowling ball down a pipe and Sylvester swallows it and goes rolling down the hill in this wobbling manner. It's a very funny scene. And so it's an easy one to get different people to describe. So what we do is we show cartoons like that to different people in this signing community, and one thing that's very interesting is that those kids who were children longer ago, those were the first group that started signing in the early 1980s when the language was first getting formed. They sign differently than those who came after them. They started this language, and they started enriching it and making it more and more complex, and then as they aged, they started to level out on the way that they signed.

But by that time, by the time they were reaching adolescence, in the mid-'80s. a whole new cohort of children were entering the school, and those kids could learn this language really quickly. So then they were followed by another cohort of children. So what happens today is, if you look at different people in the community today, it's almost like rings in a tree telling you what happened in previous years. You can see the process of language growth just by comparing 30-year-olds to 20-year-olds to 10-year-olds.

So the way we do those comparisons is we show them all something like this cartoon. We collect the same kind of description from all different people in the community, and we can see how, you know, it can--it starts with this very gestural origins. The structures that are in the signing are a lot like gesture, and as you go younger and younger they get more and more carved up into these different elements, more and more assembled into more and more complex constructions. So we're really watching language birth and growth right from its beginnings.

PALCA: We're talking with Ann Senghas of Barnard College of Columbia University about her work with an emerging language in Latin America among Nicaraguan signers. And we invite you to join the conversation. The number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And let's take a call right now to see what our listeners are making of all this. Let's go to Colin in Columbia, Missouri. Welcome to the program.

COLIN (Caller): Oh, good morning.

PALCA: Good morning, or afternoon.

COLIN: Sorry. Oh, yes. My question is--I'm a professor of Gaelic languages and, you know, Gaelic language has been learned, you know, since the creation of the nation. And when the English took over 600 and some-odd years ago, Gaelic actually took a transformation and started assimilating English verb tenses and pronunciations and even nouns and pronoun usage, and I was wondering if that is happening with this language. I know it's relatively new, but, I mean, I can understand how some people who have a basis of, like, sign language in this case, would be able to even have an inkling, and if their influence and learning this has sort of changed the language a bit and added its own personal touch to it.

PALCA: Interesting question, Colin. What about that, Ann Senghas?

Dr. SENGHAS: Well, it is interesting in the history of languages how different languages will come into contact and change over time, and you can see, I think, there are lots of instances like this where you'll have, you know, different political events and social events that make different languages change and blend and get passed down. And one particularly interesting thing about Gaelic is that there's been a revival of Gaelic recently, and one successful way that has been taken to revive that language has been to pass it down to children, to really work with children who are learning the language, instead of just teaching it to adults. I think that all of these things are taking advantage of these really powerful learning abilities that children have to create new languages out of whatever it is that they have in their environment.

What's particularly different about the Nicaraguan case is what they have in their environment isn't a rich language, like Gaelic or like English. The raw materials they're working with are gestures. So they're very unstructured and they don't have verb tenses and nouns when you're starting out, and yet children take that as their raw material and create language out of it, a language that does have nouns and verbs and all different verb forms. Some of my other work, actually, is specifically on those kinds of verb forms. But all these different things--you can see how they've emerged.

PALCA: Colin, thanks very much for the call.

COLIN: Thank you, and slainte.

PALCA: OK. Fine.

Let's take a call from Alicia in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALICIA (Caller): Hi. Thank you.

PALCA: What's your question?

ALICIA: Question is, what were these children--how were these children communicating prior to adopting or creating this language? Were they learning speech or were they learning Spanish or some different kind of sign language?

Dr. SENGHAS: That's an excellent question. I mean, one thing that--we have learned a lot about how deaf children communicate when they don't have a sign language in their environment. These kids weren't being exposed to any other sign language. There wasn't one available. And before this time, there just hadn't been enough of a critical mass of deaf people for one to emerge naturally, and there wasn't anyone coming from the outside, teaching a sign language that was used on some other continent, either.

So we know from work--Susan Goldin Meadow and her colleagues have done work with deaf children who are in hearing families--they don't know any deaf adults--to look at exactly what kinds of communication system children like that develop, and they do develop some of the early fundamentals. Again, they're using these same language-learning abilities. Early fundamentals of language can even appear in those what we call `home sign' systems. They're gestural. They start out talking about the here and now, and they even in those cases can start to develop a little bit of structure, and it looks a little bit like something linguistic already. This is a way that we can tap into more of these learning abilities.

What happened then, when all these kids were brought together, though, even those who had developed some home sign systems with their families, they each had their own home sign system. So once they were thrown together, they still couldn't use those to communicate effectively with each other until they started to converge on something common and more conventionalized among that group. And so it looks like that happened, you know, starting from about 1980; they started to converge. Their home signs were pooled together. And then, from that point, they started to expand and grow and reach a complexity that we don't see in home sign systems.

PALCA: Alicia, thanks for that. That's an interesting point.

So they actually pulled together a bunch of different language bits and combined them into a whole language.

Dr. SENGHAS: Yeah, although I don't know if we would say `language bits.' I mean, even the home signers were working with gesture.

PALCA: I got it.

Dr. SENGHAS: So, ultimately, we can learn a lot by studying gesture to see what kinds of structures are adoptable into language and what kinds of things get thrown away. I mean, they didn't just create new things; they also discarded lots of stuff. There's a lot of rich stuff in gesture. My colleagues Sotaro Kita and Asli Ozyurek, in fact--the other people on this project--are gesture researchers and they know a lot about the kinds of structures that you see in gesture.

We first were thinking maybe we'd see a lot of those structures get co-opted into the language and be used to build the language, but apparently they're not languagelike enough, and blending things together and doing things simultaneously in the way that gestures do doesn't seem very usable once you start turning them into a language.

PALCA: So does this all say that somewhere in our brains there's a place that tells us what we have to have for language, and if it's not there we'll make it up?

Dr. SENGHAS: And that these abilities are particularly available when we're children. So yes, there's something about child brains, in particular, about the way that children are ready to learn language, just the way they're ready to learn to walk, the way they're ready to learn to eat. You know, they've got their radar out looking for `What's the stuff in the world that I'm going to use to map onto this language stuff and find all of my little units and assemble them into bigger language?' They're ready to do that. From the time that they start noticing other people and interacting with other people, they're ready to do that, and it's something that's really strong when we're young. And as we reach adolescence, it becomes less and less available to us.

PALCA: So do you go back down there, say--or are you done?

Dr. SENGHAS: I do. No, there's a lot of work to do. I mean, there's so much, it's like a gold mine down there, you know? Any piece of the language you pick, you can say, `Where did that come from? What did that grow out of?' And it's almost like watching a young child--anyone who's known someone going through the ages of one and two and three, it's really great. Every month you go and see these new things that the child has learned. That's what it's like going back to Nicaragua every summer for me. I'll go four to six weeks each summer and videotape kids and work with the adults as well, and try and decipher the language and figure out where parts of it came from, and...


Dr. SENGHAS: And it's--there's no end to this work, as far as I can see.

PALCA: Sounds like a great gig. Well, good luck on that. Ann Senghas, thank you for joining us.

Ann Senghas is director of the Language Acquisition and Development Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York.

Copyright © 2004 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.