Ken Lyen's Home
Ken's Links
London Revisited 2000
Letter from London 2006
Singapore Musical Theatre
Making the Grade
Writing Musicals
Musicals from Movies
Fred Ebb
The Story of Chess
Mama Mia
Bad Vibrations
Chestnuts 2003
Chestnuts 2004
Chestnuts 2005
Incubating New Musicals
List of Musicals on Film
Is Musical Theatre Dead?
Is Classical Music Dead?
Is Poetry Dead?
Why Read Poetry?
New Words
Nothing's Wrong
Hippie Dictionary
Singlish Dictionary
Blog Dictionary
Best of the Best
English Spoke
Reading in Decline
Too Many Books
Magic of Reading
Pablo Neruda
Graphic Novels
Writers Bar
Lost For Words
Encyclopedia Wars
Library in Cyberspace
The Bridge
Growing A Film Industry
Great Levellers
Rote Rites and Rongs
Beautiful Minds
Create Talented Individuals?
Rise of the Creative Class
Perchance to Dream
Children's EQ
Gifted Education
Gifted Children
Mozart Effect
Confucius and Multiple Intelligences
Predicting Your Future
Mistyping Personality
Messy Homes
Does Age Matter?
Too Young for Philosophy?
Philosopher for Hire
Deconstructing Derrida
University Quotas
Ranking Universities
University Ranking Continued
The Future of Universities
If Thine Eye Offends Thee
If It Ain't Broke
New Exams for Old!
Too Many Test
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Childhood Memories
Signs of Success
Follow Your Dreams
First Impressions
Handphone Etiquette
Handphones Silenced
Apple Of My i
Sex and the Media
The Greeks
Geographic Clangers
Domino Theory
Hello Kitty
Heels on Wheels
What a Racket!
Potty Training
Skip to the Loo
Corporal Punishment
Is Modern Art Rubbish?
Mona Lisa Grins
Sunday in the Park
Vision and Art
Spam Glorious Spam!
Humble Pie
Sour Grapes?
Murphy's Law Calculator
Perfect Search
False Logic
Noah's Ark
Who Discovered America?
Palaces of Dictators
Joys of Stress
Games Academics Play
Virtual Reality Treatmemt
Autistic Underconnectivity
Asperger Syndrome
Pay Attention!
Attention Deficit
Speech Delay
Almost Normal
Prozac Nation
Gilles de la Tourette
Singapore Medicine
Virtual Dissection
War Against Malaria
Into the Frying Pan
Back to Methuselah
Poetic Medicine
Far Eastern Economic Review
History of the Singapore Musical
My Research
Singapore Idle
Best Countries
Brain Drain
Greatest Happiness
Remaking Singapore
Singapore Nobel Prize
Singapore MRT Map
National Day
Caste System
Doctors' Fees
Leadership and Teambuilding
Doctor Do-Much
Play it Again, Doc
A Dose of Music
Prescription for the Heart
Multiple Personality
Fly By Night
Rape of Nanking
Iris Chang
Anne Frank
Angela's Ashes
The Notebook
Hollywood Insider
Fahrenheit 9/11 Pirates
The Front
The Barbarian Invasions
Les Choristes
The Return
Road Home
Farewell My Concubine
So You Want to be a Nurse
School House Rockz
Makan Place
e-mail me

Signs of Success


Signs of Success

by Kenneth Lyen

I am a slow learner.

I was one of the judges for a concert where the disabled co-wrote songs with the able. For the closing theme song, we were taught how to sign the lyrics. All my fellow judges learnt the sign language very quickly. But I just could not remember the action sequences, frequently getting it wrong. It was quite embarrassing.

On another occasion, I was part of the committee that made the decision to introduce the Makaton sign language, a simple system, for learning-disabled children. As committee members, we were taught some of these easy signs, and I discovered that I was actually the more learning disabled, because of my inability to learn this simplified sign language.

It is therefore with astonishment that I read about a group of Nicaraguan hearing-impaired children who created from scratch, a brand-new sign language.

It all began after the 1979 Sandinista revolution, when the new Nicaraguan Government started a nationwide program to educate deaf children. Hundreds of students were enrolled in two Managua schools. Before then, deaf Nicaraguans stayed at home and interacted with family members using a personal system of communication. They could only communicate basic needs like "eat," "drink," and so on.

Unfortunately the new teachers were inexperienced. They were advised by the Soviet advisors to teach the children finger spelling, which meant manually stroking with the index finger the outline of each individual alphabet onto the children’s open palms. But having no knowledge of either the alphabet or the words they were meant to spell, the children could not make head or tail what it all meant, and the effort was totally futile. The teachers even tried other methods, including lip-reading, but once again all their attempts to communicate ended in abject failure.

Then, to the teachers' amazement, the children started communicating with each other through a unique system of hand gestures. A new sign language was being born right in front of their very eyes.

There are three major findings in the evolution of this extraordinary sign language. First, the originators of the language were children, and the signs were gradually improved upon as they entered their 20s. Secondly, a few years later, when a new generation of younger deaf children were learning this sign language, they modulated the cruder signs of their elders, enriching them so that they became more nuanced and streamlined. Their improvements were soon adopted by everyone in the community. All this was done without any assistance from their teachers or parents, who were mere spectators to this creation. The third observation is that the new sign language had rules of grammar that were similar not only to all the other sign languages in the world, but also to spoken languages.

Steven Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct," says that what happened in Nicaraguan children is proof that language acquisition is hardwired inside the human brain. The development of this unique sign language by young children supports Noam Chomsky’s postulate that children have an innate ability to produce language, and that they are equipped with the rules of a universal grammar.

It should not surprise one that sign language can arise so relatively easily. Anthropologists claim that before the development of spoken language, early man was already communicating nonverbally. The earliest mention of sign language is by Xenophon in 431 BC. The philosopher Condillac proposed in the mid 18th century that language originated as gestures. It was the Abbé de l’Épée who observed that deaf people roaming the streets of Paris were communicating with one another using an animated system of hand gestures. The abbé established a school for the deaf in 1755, and used his deaf students’ natural signs to further their education. This French system of sign language was later to become the foundation of the American Sign Language.

It seems that sign language is closer to the origin of language than speech. Sign language appears to have arisen spontaneously and independently in different parts of the world. For example, Chinese sign language is very different from American, or Danish, or Nicaraguan sign language.

Inventing a brand-new sign language is not easy. Try it yourself. Create a new system of sign language. Pose yourself the following questions. How would you communicate the passage of time? How would you use signs to differentiate between something you have done just a few seconds ago, versus something you did last week? How would you differentiate between an act done by a male or a female, between a young person or an old person, or between people of different races, or between one solitary person versus a large group of people? How would you sign that you have just watched the film "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"? Then tell us what the film is all about. It is like playing the game Charades, except it quickly becomes infinitely more difficult.

Whoever invented sign language must be a true genius!