Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.
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Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.
52 Whitney Farms Road
North Yarmouth, Maine USA 04097
Tel: 207-409-6906

We are incorporated in the State of New Jersey and registered to conduct business in the State of Maine.  NSLP also is formally registered with the Nicaraguan Government as an NGO.  NSLP is a nonprofit charitable organization that enjoys tax exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (EIN: 22-3377779).  Our organization is overseen by an uncompensated Board of Trustees consisting of linguists from the United States and Great Britain and a social worker from Nicaragua.  NSLP is a secular organization; we are not affiliated with any religious denomination.  We operate projects in collaboration with public and private entities, secular and non-secular, serving Deaf people in Nicaragua.

OUR PURPOSE:  Nicaraguan Sign Langauge Projects, Inc. administers programs designed to empower Nicaragua's emergent Deaf communities by fostering nationalization of the indigenous signed language and by training natively fluent Deaf Nicaraguans to be school teachers and sign language role models.  We operate sign language immersion clinics and outreach projects for Deaf children who otherwise would have no access to a first language.  And, we train and assign sign language fluent Deaf teachers to work both independently and alongside hearing teachers in established school programs in order to creat a sign language rich classroom environment.

OUR PHILOSOPHY:  Committed to the philosophy that Deaf Nicaraguans must help each other, NSLP's focus has been on preparing talented young Deaf people to become teachers and role models for the next generation of Deaf children.  We believe that language is fundamental to human existence.  Developing a modicum of communication skills in the society's dominant speech driven language may be a worthwhile goal for some Deaf children.  However, this is no substitute for native language skills.  For most, if not all, Deaf children in Nicaragua, a sign language presents the only viable option as a medium for native or first language acquisition.  Beyond the personal and social benefits that sign language brings to a Deaf child within his or her Deaf community, a fluent Deaf signer is better able to develop communication strategies for interacting with hearing people and for surviving in a hearing society.

Out of respect for Nicaraguan culture and identity, NSLP advocates immersing Nicaraguan Deaf children in their country's indigenous sign language.  ISN (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua), while only a generation old, is not in any respect a lesser language when compared to older sign languages or, for that matter, spoken languages.  Rather, Nicaraguan Sign Language is as sophisticated, rule governed and versatile as any human language.  This is hardly surprising to linguists who appreciate that like all languages, Nicaragua's sign language emerged among a human population.

There is no teaching methodology for teaching a first language to a child.  Rather, the child must be placed in a language rich and a language accessible environment in order to be immersed in the target language.  The child will then naturally acquire native language skills over time.  (Late language learners may require a more directed approach.)

Deaf teachers trained by NSLP are fluent native signers.  Their presence and their active participation in educational programs creates a language rich environment for Deaf students. 

VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES:  NSLP has openings from time to time for qualified volunteers wishing to work for us both in Nicaragua and in Maine, USA.  We prefer volunteers who are sign language fluent (in any sign language) and/or have formal linguistic training.  Fluency in either Spanish or English is also desirable.  Volunteers are admonished not to contaminate Nicaraguan Sign Language with lexicon from any foreign sign language.  We recognize that borrowing is a normal function of language evolution; however, our volunteers must not be the source.  References and a criminal background check are mandatory.  Volunteers wishing to conduct independent linguistic or sociological research involving Deaf informants in Nicaragua must demonstrate compliance with their own institution's human subject testing protocols, must demonstrate familiarity with our protocols, and must agree to share data both with NSLP and with ANSNIC (Nicaraguan National Deaf Association).  NSLP generally does not subsidize travel, meal or lodging costs for volunteers.  Most volunteers are expected to attend training sessions in Maine before coming to Nicaragua.

ORIGIN OF NICARAGUAN SIGN LANGUAGE:  Prior to the 1980's, Nicaraguan Sign Language did not exist.  Most deaf children in Nicaragua stayed home and had little opportunity to encounter other deaf children.  Of course, being deaf, these children had no access to Spanish or any other spoken language.  As these children grew into adulthood, they remained completely "languageless."  In the 1970s, a few deaf children attended small special education classes, most notably in Ciudad Dario and Managua, but these program did not teach a signed language.  (Similar educational efforts going back at least to the 1940s focused on speech therapy.)  After the 1979 revolution, the new government embarked upon a "Literacy Crusade" aimed at bringing at least a fourth grade education to all members of Nicaraguan Society, including children with disabilities.  The special education school in Managua was re-opened, but this time with hundreds of deaf students attending academic classes at the Melania Morales Special Education Center in Barrio San Judas.  (Programs for deaf children were also set up in other locations including León, Estelí, Ocotal and a vocational class in Bo. Villa Libertad in Managua.  Sign Language was not taught at any of these programs, but over time older students from the Bo. San Judas school transfered to the vocational classes in Bo. Villa Libertad.  There may have been contact between Managua and León students, as well.)  Teachers at Melania Morales were not able to communicate using a sign language, but instead tried to teach students to understand Spanish by reading lips, by reading written Spanish, and by using a manual alphabet (fingerspelling).  These methods were unsuccessful.  And yet, within a few years, a new sign language, with a rich vocabulary and a complex grammar, was created by this student population.  How did this happen?

When a deaf child stays at home, the child can survive with minimal communication.  The child does not need a sophisticated language because all his or her needs are taken care of by the child's hearing parents and other family members.  At home, a single gesture can be used to cover entire events.  For example, waving the hand toward the mouth can mean: "are you hungry," "time to eat," "do you like the food?," "that is a mango," "that is a potato," or just about anything else somehow related to food.  The hearing family member does the thinking for the deaf child and uses the "food gesture" to mean whatever fits the situation at hand.  Similarly, another gesture could mean "sleep," "bed," "go to bed" or "are you sleepy?"  Consequently, deaf children left isolated in homes with family members learn very simple gesture systems, and nothing more.  Tragically, such children grow into adulthood wholly dependent upon their family members for everything.

At Melania Morales, hundreds of these deaf children, ages 4 to 16, suddenly found themselves in an environment where their communication needs were no longer met by family members.  These children were now forced to come up with a better way to communicate with each other.  They copied each other's gestures, expanding their repertoires as a common vocabulary began to develop among them.  There were not using a language -- not yet.  But, they were becoming better at communicating their needs and experiences among each other.

Hearing infants have an uncanny ability to acquire first language skills within the first few years of life.  Hearing children in typical Spanish speaking homes will speak Spanish fluently by the time they are ready to enter primary school.  How children are able to do this is a matter of much scientific study and debate.

In the 1960s, Professor Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued that children do not learn language they way they learn other skills, such as reading or playing a game of cards.  Rather, Chomsky theorized that children are born with an inherited or innate ability to learn any human language.  He claimed that the only way that children could so reliably learn grammar, even when their parents were not consistently using full grammatical sentences, was that children come to language learning with certain built-in expectations about how languages work.  (In casual conversation, we frequently have no need to speak using full grammatical sentences.)  Chomsky suggested that all human languages are governed by a "universal grammar."  In other words, the infant expects the language in his environment to adhere to certain grammatical rules from a preset number of acceptable options.  For example, the child expects a rule to distinguish "one" from "more than one" or an ongoing action from an action completed in the past.  The child anticipates that the language around him will employ rules for word order to distinguish subjects, verbs and objects from each other in any sentence.  Given access to that language, the child will determine which rules apply and how those rules apply.  The child needs then only to plug in vocabulary and to memorize the occasional exceptions in order to form grammatically correct sentences.

Unlike spoken languages, all signed languages -- and there are many of them -- are able to take advantage of three dimensional space to describe thoughts and events.  We think that deaf children, through their language instinct, expect certain grammatical structures to apply in their visual language, especially when communication involves a three dimensional concept:  The girl puts the book on the top shelf.  The cat sits under the table.  And, indeed, the sign language that emerged in Managua shares many of the grammatical structures that we see in other signed languages.  In other ways, Nicaraguan Sign Language has properties that we find in spoken languages like Spanish, or Chinese, or Swahili.

Every time a child acquires his first language, that child is really creating a language.  Born with a language instinct, the child is able to determine how the language used by others fits his innate expectations about grammar.  If adding s converts one perro to many, then adding s to one gato should achieve the same result.  The child over time adjusts such generalizations as needed to deal with any observed exceptions and simply expands his vocabulary by memorizing the words used by everyone else.  In due course, the language that the child has created matches the language in his environment.  (Children growing up in a home where two languages are used have no trouble becoming fluent in both languages.)

What the child cannot do is produce a language in a vacuum.  The child may have an innate capacity to create language, but something in his environment has to trigger the process.  Furthermore, many studies strongly suggest that as the child grows older, his natural ability to create a first language begins to diminish.  It is therefore critical that each child be given the opportunity to acquire first language skills while that child is still young.

We can identify four conditions that produced a fertile ground for a new language to take root in Managua and other sites where deaf children came together.

The first language condition was the obvious one: visual access to communication.  Hearing children hear speech all around them.  Deaf children who grow up in a home surrounded by fluent sign language users have no problem becoming native signers.  In Managua, even when teachers were forbidding gesturing in the classroom, the deaf children had access to each other during recess.  Moreover, they tended to travel together on the buses each day between home and school.

The second condition was quantity -- a sufficient number of children in contact with each other.  Would a sign language emerge in a small group of children over a long period of time?  Possibly -- but in Managua hundreds of deaf children were brought together, and Nicaraguan Sign Language was created in just a few years.

The third condition was need.  As noted above, without assistance from their parents, these children needed to find a way to communicate their thoughts and experiences on their own.  Further, confronted with the academic challenges of school classrooms, these children had a lot to discuss.

The final condition was age spread.  The deaf children in Managua ranged from age 4 to teenage adolescents.  The older children supplied old gestures from home and new gestures they came up with at school in order to create the beginnings of a lexicon.  The young children expected there to be some kind of grammar.  The teenagers, however, were merely stringing together gestures copied from one another -- a form of communication that was called "mimicas" by their hearing teachers.  Still, when children observed anything that appeared to be a reoccurring pattern, they mistakenly assumed that this pattern constituted a rule.  These children then applied this rule to similar circumstances.

Ironically, the children themselves became the language role models for the teenagers.  The teenagers began copying the children!  In doing so, a loop was established.  Looking for feedback from older students, the children saw only their own generalizations about grammar coming into use.  Young children did not have to adapt their generalizations to fit the language model around them.  Instead, those generalizations became the prototype.  Unlike the Spanish speaking child who re-creates Spanish from the Spanish of his environment, the deaf children in Managua had managed to create an entirely new language.

In 1986, the teachers and administrtors at the Melania Morales school were mystefied that the children appeared to be using their hands to communicate with each other.  That year, the Ministry of Education invited another linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Judy Kegl, to come to Managua and explain this unexpected phenomenon.  Familiar with Chomsky's universal grammar theories, Kegl quickly realized that the Nicaraguan government had supplied the triggers that would enable deaf children to create a rich, complex and rule governed new sign language.  Armed with video cameras, Kegl endeavored to document the birthing of Nicaraguan Sign Language.

In time, the Ministry of Education shifted away from an educational philosophy based upon lipreading and, instead, embraced the new sign language.  Today, the vocational school in Barrio Villa Libertad is long gone, but the Melania Morales primary school in Barrio San Judas is thriving.  Schools in many other cities have adopted Nicaraguan Sign Language for use in the education of their deaf students.  In some communities, Deaf students are now able to attend secondary school programs, and, in some cases, university classes.  More and more interpreters are being trained.  And, a few Deaf Nicaraguans have become certified as teachers in pre-schools and primary schools.

The Deaf culture in Managua is vibrant, centered around the Nicaraguan National Deaf Association (ANSNIC).  Smaller chapters of ANSNIC are forming in several other cities.

While many deaf children, especially in rural communities, continue to live with limited or total language isolation, Nicaraguan Sign Language has spread to the four corners of the country.  And, linguists worldwide include Nicaraguan Sign Language on the list of human languages, spoken or signed.

"The Nicaraguan case is absolutely unique in history," Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, maintains in an interview with a journalist.  "We've been able to see how it is that children -- not adults -- generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail.  And it's the only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air."  Lawrence Osborne, "A Linguistic Big Bang", New York Times, October 24, 1999.  For a full description: Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, The New Science of Language and Mind, Penguin Books (London, UK 1994).  And, for a scientific article, we suggest: Kegl, Senghas and Coppula, "Creation through Contact: Sign Language Emergence and Sign Language Change in Nicaragua" in Language Creation and Language Change: Creolization, Diachrony, and Development, Michael DeGraff, Ed., MIT Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England 1999), pp. 179-237.


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