Literacy In Nicaraguan Sign Language

"Written Sign" Recognition Skills
at the Escuelita de Bluefields

Janice Gangel-Vasquez

California State University
Dominguez Hills, California



 Thesis Chapter 1

Thesis Chapter 2

 Thesis Chapter 3




This paper is an examination of a literacy program for the deaf of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, who, until recently, had no language. Sign language has no historic roots on the Atlantic Coast, so the deaf communicated in home signs, a highly idiosyncratic gesture system. The main missing ingredient for language emergence in the region has been a Community of the Deaf ...see Footnote 1.

Footnote 1: Following standard conventions in sign language literature, deaf is used to refer to hearing loss and Deaf to refer to cultural identification as a member of the Deaf Community.

In 1995 the Escuelita de Bluefields (Little School of Bluefields) was established in Bluefields, Nicaragua, with the aim of teaching language and literacy to the deaf of this region. The organizers of the Escuelita de Bluefields have assumed responsibility for setting up an environment that facilitates the acquisition of language. By bringing together the deaf in a school whose instructors communicate in sign language, the organizers are spurring language development. Simultaneously, they are teaching literacy in these students' first language...the new sign language of Nicaragua. Linguists are closely observing the development of language among these students, most of whom are beyond what is considered to be the optimal age for first language acquisition. The Bluefields school also presents a unique opportunity for educators and researchers to witness these students' progress as they learn to read.

Dramatic events of the 1980s drastically changed the isolation of the deaf throughout most of Nicaragua. Prior to the overthrow of Somoza in 1979, education was inaccessible to the majority of Nicaraguans. One year after the Sandinista victory, the new government initiated massive social programs including health care and public education through the fourth grade. In the first few years of the revolution, the Sandinistas launched an alfabetizacion (literacy) campaign and organized thousands of volunteer readers to teach those who could not read. As early as 1980, the Nicaraguan government was awarded the UNESCO literacy award in acknowledgment of its success in lowering the illiteracy rate from 50.35% to 12.9%. ...see Footnote 2...(Senghas and Kegl, 1994, p. 40). Special education programs for children with disabilities were established countrywide. However, civil war was raging and the meager resources available for these programs were primarily aimed at the population centers around Managua and the regions of the Pacific Coast.

Footnote 2: The Sandinista commitment to mass education brought about a dramatic change in the availability of education. In 1978 only 9,000 children attended pre-schools, which were privately funded. By 1987, over 28,000 attended the state-funded pre-schools. The number of children attending primary school rose from 370,000 in 1978 to over 600,000 by 1987. The increase in secondary education was just as dramatic, from 99,000 students in 1978 to 167,000 in 1986 (Smith, cited in Senghas and Kegl, 1994).

Nicaragua's deaf population has only recently been brought together to form a community, a culture, and a language. Historically, the deaf population had no indigenous national sign language, nor had they adopted a sign language from another country. Laura Polich reports that most parents confined their deaf children to their homes as a means of protecting them from ridicule and because of the stigma associated with having a deaf child. In place of a language, deaf children created an idiosyncratic set of home signs to communicate their basic needs within the family (n.d., p. 1)

The leaders of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 set the scene for the birth of a new language when they established mass education. For the first time, young deaf people were brought together in educational settings, although they were grouped with other youth with disabilities, including mental retardation. The classes were taught orally in Spanish, which was not a successful mode of instruction for the deaf students. Noel Lam Herrera, who administered the hearing-impaired program at the Ministry of Education, reported that after five years, "The students just weren't making progress. We had even a special, less-demanding curriculum, and they weren't even attaining that" (cited in Polich, p. 3). He explained that, although they relied on oralism, the basis of a good oral program did not exist, since the teachers were not trained to use sign language. The auditory training apparatuses were nonfunctional, and fewer than 10% of the students were fitted with individual hearing aids, whose batteries soon died. Even in 1994, Polich still found no trained speech therapists on the staff of the Ministry of Education.

Despite the poor classroom instruction, there was a spontaneous emergence of a new natural language within a short period. What new ingredient forced the creation of a language? Kegl and McWhorter (in press) report that "abrupt spontaneous emergence will not occur in the absence of the right kind of input, which itself need not be a fully formed language" (p. 19). The crucial ingredient for language formation was not the Spanish-based instruction in the Managua-area schools, but the daily interaction of hundreds of deaf students who shared the rudiments of language they brought with them...their own individual home signs, a gesture system that is referred to by Deaf and hearing Nicaraguans as mimicas/MIMICAS (mime or gesture)...see Footnote 3...People who have acquired a language base their gesturing on their language knowledge, whereas gesture for a prelingual person is an impoverished system since there is no knowledge of language structure. Without a community of signers, home signers left in linguistic isolation do not spontaneously generate a language. Kegl, Senghas, and Coppola (in press) assert that the "source of language is within us but that the conditions for its emergence depend crucially upon community" (p. 50).

Footnote 3: ASL notation uses all capital letters for the closest translation from English. That convention is followed here in translating from Nicaraguan sign language to English or Spanish. I follow Kegl, Senghas, and Coppola in their use of the dual representation "mimicas/MIMICAS", which signifies the use in both spoken and signed form.

Over the past 12 years, Judy Kegl and her colleagues have observed the emergence of this natural language by focusing on the signing of hundreds of deaf students in the Managua area. Ann Senghas describes the pidgin emerging from the students' early interaction as variable and non-optimal in the sense of usual language development, but it was rich enough to trigger the innate language faculty in the following generations of children to enter the school environment. Without this exposure to a language community, complex language structures would not have evolved. "The nativization process reverberat[ed] throughout the entire community" as the younger signers reached adulthood and began to influence the language of the other signers (1994, p. 38).

Steven Pinker (1994) describes the language of this second generation of Managua children who entered the schools after the development of the pidgin ...see Footnote 4...that grew out of the home signs.

"Their signing is more fluid and compact, and the gestures are more stylized and less like a pantomime. In fact, when their signing is examined close up, it is so different from LSN that it is referred to by a different name, Idioma de Signos Nicaraguense (ISN) . . . [which] appears to be a creole, created in one leap when the younger children were exposed to the pidgin signing of the older children. . . . ISN has spontaneously standardized itself; all the young children sign it in the same way." (pp. 36-37) ...see Footnote 5.

Footnote 4: Creolist Derek Bickerton defines pidgin as a "makeshift, structurally impoverished contact language which is not the native language of any of its speakers" (1996, p. 29).
Footnote 5: In the literature, the phrase Idioma de Signos Nicaraguense (ISN) is often used for the fully articulated language, while Lenguaje de Signos Nicaraguense (LSN) labels the signed pidgin. The acronyms LSN and ISN are avoided in this paper since they are not natural acronym forms in Spanish, and the Nicaraguans have not adopted them to describe the signed language. Finding the best terminology is also difficult because, as the language and the Community of the Deaf evolve, so does the terminology. The National Association of the Deaf of Nicaragua (Asociacion Nacional de Sordos de Nicaragua or ANSNIC) recently published the much-awaited Diccionario del Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua, whose title gives yet another label for the newly emerged language. (For a discussion on the coexisting communication forms in Nicaragua see Kegl, Senghas and Coppola, p. 4.)

Moreover, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact stage of an individualís language acquisition on the continuum from home sign gestures to pidgin to the full language. For these reasons, Nicaraguan sign language or Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua is the label used in this paper for the range of the language from pidgin to the fully articulated form.

Kegl (1994, p. 26) reports that the second generation of students, now in their mid-twenties, took "this highly variable and grammatically non-optimal communication system and filter[ed] out the noise and fill[ed] in the holes on the basis of innate language expectations" to develop a new language...Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua...that has gone far beyond its model. Several subsequent school generations have absorbed and recharged the language they inherited. This is now the target language for Nicaraguan signers.

The Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua has a long history of geographic and cultural isolation from the rest of the country. A vast rain forest and mountain range separate the "two Nicaraguas". The Atlantic Coast's sparse population is quite diverse in comparison to the homogenous Spanish-speaking mestizos of western Nicaragua. Several distinct cultures and languages coexist on the Atlantic Coast: indigenous populations (Miskitu, Rama, Sumo, and others), Spanish-speaking mestizos, and African-descendant speakers of English-based creole, which is a legacy of the British slave trade in the Caribbean.

In this sparsely populated region, with miles of almost impenetrable forest, communities are isolated from each other and from the city centers. Because of their geographic isolation, many of the hearing youth do not attend schools, and the isolation of the deaf has been even more profound. Even in Bluefields, the main city on the Atlantic Coast, and Corn Island (a day's boat ride from Bluefields), no Deaf Community has coalesced. Despite the continuing presence of a deaf population that ranges in age from infancy to late adulthood, the ingredient essential to language emergence was still For those who attended the schools organized for students with disabilities, there was too little intensive interaction among the deaf to force the birth of a new language.

In fact, until 1995, no education was offered in sign language for the deaf population of the Atlantic Coast. Even today, grouping by disability is not practiced in the region except in the Escuelita de Bluefields, the only school for the deaf with signed instruction in the region. The school is a joint project of the US-based Nicaraguan Sign Language Project, ...see Footnote 6... ANSNIC, the Bluefields chapter of Los Pipitos, and FONIF ...see Footnote 7... The student body of the school is built anew each term by researchers of the ambitious Sign Language Project, who visit the most remote regions of the Atlantic Coast to document the deaf population and the modes of communication that have developed. Since the deaf are perceived by the local hearing people as mute, researchers travel from town to town asking if anyone knows of any mudos. Then they travel by small plane and by ponga (a small boat powered by outboard motor) across lagoons and rain forest and up unmapped rivers to isolated communities in search of the one or two deaf inhabitants. Communication with the newly discovered home signers is videotaped for later analysis of each home sign system. The deaf Costenos (people of the Atlantic Coast) are invited to return to Bluefields for the next Escuelita de Bluefields term, when a team treks back to the students' communities and transports them to Bluefields. Out-of-town students are housed dormitory-style in local homes, which is not only the most economical means of housing but also part of the plan to encourage interaction among the students to stimulate language emergence.

Footnote 6: The Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. (NSL)P) is a non-profit, tax exempt New Jersey corporation established to operate and fund sign language projects in Nicaragua. Project Coordinator James Shepard Kegl explains that members of NSLP have been studying and documenting the emergence of Nicaraguan sign language since 1986.

Footnote 7: The community organization Los Pipitos was born in 1986. By 1994 it represented the parents of 4,281 children from all regions of Nicaragua (Polich, p. 14). FONIF is a social service agency of the Nicaraguan government.

Since the summer of 1995, Escuelita de Bluefields has operated a maximum of four months a year. Students range in age from five to thirty seven years, and the teaching staff is a blend of the hearing and the deaf reflecting a range of Nicaraguan sign language from pidgin to the full language. Most of the teachers are the creators of Nicaraguan sign language from the second-generation students of the Managua-area schools of the 1980s. Project coordinator James Shephard Kegl, with the help of the deaf teachers, has translated several pieces of English and Spanish literature into Nicaraguan sign language using the Sutton SignWriting system ...see Footnote 8... The most successful lessons are prepared when James Shephard Kegl meets with the deaf instructors to review the lesson materials for the day before they are delivered to the classes. The curriculum is very ambitious and includes academic subjects, as well as vocabulary and grammar, and SignWriting lessons...all for students who had no language before entering the school.

Footnote 8: SignWriting is a system of reading, writing and typing the movements of signed languages, developed by Valerie Sutton and the Center for Sutton Movement Writing Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt, educational membership organization founded in southern California in 1974. The Deaf Action Committee For SignWriting (the DAC) is sponsored by the Center For Sutton Movement Writing.

The organizers of the Escuelita decided to teach literacy using the Sutton SignWriting system because it is a "phonetic" system adaptable to all sign languages ...see Footnote 9... An attempt to teach literacy in Spanish or English, the two main written languages of the Atlantic Coast, would impose an impossible burden on these students. Not only would they have to learn a second language while still acquiring their first, but the syntax of an oral language is entirely different from the syntax of a naturally evolved signed language.

Footnote 9: Educators and linguists have developed and experimented with sign notation systems for years, but few Deaf Communities or educators have adopted a sign notation system as a form of literacy for the deaf. However, there are pockets of the Deaf in several countries including Brazil, Denmark, the United States, Ireland, Mexico, and England that have embraced the Sutton SignWriting system.
..see Who Uses SignWriting?...

In 1997, I made two trips to the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua to study the literacy program at Escuelita de Bluefields and to seek answers to the following questions. Is it reasonable to expect that the language-deprived deaf of the Atlantic Coast can be taught to read? Can literacy be achieved if "literacy" is restricted to learning a written form of an oral second language? Can literacy be taught to the deaf through SignWriting in their first language...Nicaraguan sign language?


Would you like a photocopy of this entire thesis? The paper version includes more diagrams and a Table that lists the results of the tests. To receive a copy through snail mail, write to the author:

Janice Gangel-Vasquez



 Thesis Chapter 1

Thesis Chapter 2

 Thesis Chapter 3