Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Nicaraguan Sign Language: Past to Present


For a deaf child entering the community
today it’s a completely different experience. That first generation they
were language-less and they had to figure out on their own how to communicate
with each other and yet a child today there’s a full developed language
around them that they can learn immediately. My research focuses on a new
sign language that’s been emerging in Nicaragua within the deaf community
there. It started in the 1970s over the course of the last 40 years the language
has blossomed and grown and emerged. For a scientist like myself this is an
unprecedented opportunity it’s the only case that we know of of a language that’s been
documented while its originators are still alive. I’ve been documenting this language since 1990. I go down in the summers and I’ll bring a
small research team with me including some Barnard students and we’ll
video tape different people in the community in a way that lets us capture
how the language changed over time. We bring that video back and analyzing this video is kind of like code breaking. We’re trying to figure out what the regularities are. I look at every generation of the language as it got
passed down to new waves of children each year. What we’ve learned by studying
the emergence of this particular language, is that all languages come from
the same place and that’s from child learners, that children have a special
capacity not just to learn language well but to create and organize and change
language over time. Barnard has provided opportunities for students to be able to work with me. For example, I’ve had some students do Summer Research Institute fellowships or independent studies and this makes it possible for me to build a research team where they’re not just learning for me, but they’re also mentoring each other. As long as I’ve been doing this work I’m always excited
to study Nicaraguan Sign Language. It gives us this opportunity to take a
snapshot of the creative power of the human mind.

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