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Nicaraguan Sign Language / Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua

With the aim of ensuring universal access to education, in 1977 the Sandinista government of Nicaragua established a special school in the capital city, Managua, for deaf children who up to that time had had no education, going on to live their lives using signs which had been negotiated with family and friends and sometimes employers.

To start with the school tried to teach the children lipreading and Spanish, the national language of Nicaragua. This was following an approach widely followed in England but much less in the USA. The Sandinista government was formed out of a long and eventually victorious struggle against a US-backed governement which regularly tortured, imprisoned and killed its opponents. US practices and institutions were not favoured by the government. But after a period it was observed that on the bus to and from school and in the playground the children were improvising signs of their own. The school staff, with non training in sign language, were unable to understand the children’s signing. And in 1986 the Ministry of Education decided to invite Judy Shepard-Kegl, a US specialist in American Sign Language, ASL, to come to Nicaragua to advise.

She advocated a program based on the newly emerging Nicaraguan Sign Language, without assuming any connection with ASL.

The special interest was in how quickly this was happening. Human language represents an enormously complex structure. Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Sanskrit have been studied for ovder 2,000 years, and most Western European languages for over 1,000 years. Gradual changes in all of these languages have been carefully traced by scholars. On this basis, it was commonly assumed that language formation was necessarily a very slow process.

This assumption was questioned by the research into Creole languages. In societies formed on the basis of slavery, slaves were deliberately kept as far apart as possible from other slaves speaking the same language. A pidgin was the only way of communicating with the masters and their overseeers. But despite the cruelty and criminality of slavery, as soon as children were born to pidgin speaking slaves, they seemed to start developing a creole. But there was no clear, empirical evidence about the time-scale.

What was unexpected in the Nicaraguan case was the speed of the language formation process. This could now be observed and studied. The process could get going in the time a child was in school.

Although Nicaraguan Sign Language is a special, probably world-unique case, it seems to many linguists to represent clear evidence of Universal Grammar, UG, as a human universal character.

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