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
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).
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,
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
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 missing...community. 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
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?