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 childrens 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 Chomskys 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 lÉpée 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!