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




The Critical Period for First Language Acquisition

Studies of deaf children who are late-language learners illuminate the problems facing the Bluefields students in attaining literacy. Rachel Mayberry (1993) discovered strong evidence for a critical period of first language acquisition...see Footnote studying three groups of deaf individuals: (a) native signers of American Sign Language (deaf adults raised in families with deaf parents whose primary language was signed), (b) deaf children of hearing parents who suffered from late exposure to language and were less competent signers, and (c) people who learned oral language in infancy but were deafened in childhood and later learned to sign.

Footnote 10: Anderson (1983, p. 21) explains that, "If primary language acquisition does not take place prior to the onset of puberty (Lenneberg, 1967) neurological (and perhaps also cognitive) factors cause the resultant acquisition after the onset of puberty to be quite different from 'normal' first language acquisition". Eric Lenneberg hypothesizes that there is a critical age, i.e., extending from infancy to possibly puberty, for language acquisition. While his argument lacks direct proof of the effects of age exposure on first-language acquisition, studies of deaf people with late exposure to language do supply direct evidence. Elissa Newport's studies (1990) of native, early and late learners of ASL show evidence of maturational constraints on language learning. "It is clear from our empirical evidence that some significant internal constraints are required to account for why children, and only children uniformly succeed in learning language" (p. 27). Finally, according to Derek Bickerton (1984), the data he gathered on the emergence of Hawaiian Pidgin and Hawaiian Creole proves the existence of a "language bioprogram". He argues that there is "a species-specific program for language, genetically coded and expressed, in ways still largely mysterious, in the structures and modes of operation of the human brain" (p. 173).

In tests designed to measure performance in American Sign Language (ASL), she found that the last group was more fluent than those who acquired their first language late, but less fluent than the native signers. Essentially, this second-language group has "accents" comparable to the accents of late second-language learners of an oral language. Mayberry concludes from her study:

"The acquisition of language early in life is apparently necessary for language processing to be carried out efficiently in later adulthood . . . . The timing of first language acquisition in development affects language-processing skills in later adulthood independent of the specific type of language acquired early." (p. 1267)

Mayberry's studies further demonstrate that age of language acquisition is a factor in all but two measurements...the rate of signing and the total number of words signed in responses. These results suggest that the effects of late first-language acquisition are not attributable to problems in fine-motor movement and coordination, nor are they dependent on whether signing was a first or second language. However, several measures that Mayberry identified are significantly affected by the age of acquisition and seem particularly relevant for assessing the success of the Bluefields school program. Most relevant are the lexical substitutions of two types...semantic and phonetic. These semantic substitutions are consistent with the lexical role of the word in the sentence and preserve the basic sentence structure. For example, the target sentence (in English) "As a child I always played with my older brother" yielded the substitution of younger for older. However, late-first language learners made phonological substitutions that were not related to the meaning of the stimulus. Here is an example of the type of error in which the substitution had no semantic relationship: In "I ate too much turkey and potato", the sign for sleep was substituted for and resulting in "I ate too much turkey sleep potato". This substitution strategy makes sense when the "phonological" relationship is considered, i.e., the ASL signs "rhyme". However, the resulting sentence ignores the meaningful lexical relationships.

According to Mayberry, the timing of first-language acquisition shows effects on skills related to memory as well as syntactic skill. The study results suggest that late first-language acquisition limits processing skills for language in some way, which was not defined in her study.

While I make no suggestion here that there is a proven parallel between language acquisition and literacy, Mayberry's findings do hint at the type of problems the Bluefields students face as they acquire their first language. It seems reasonable to expect that their errors in sign language would have some effect on the development of their reading skills. There are studies that explore the relationship between the acquisition of ASL and English literacy. Michael Strong and Philip Prinz (1997) report a statistically significant relationship between literacy and the timing of first language acquisition. This powerful study demonstrates that the degree of ASL fluency is positively correlated with the acquisition of English literacy. The study is particularly relevant to the situation in Bluefields, since it examines literacy among a deaf group who acquired their first language late in life. Strong and Prinz studied deaf children who they divided into two ages, roughly pre- and post-puberty, which the authors describe as the "critical developmental age of 11". The hearing status of the children's mothers was also considered, because children of deaf mothers typically are introduced to language in early childhood, and they have a strong linguistic advantage over those with hearing mothers. Strong and Prinz also controlled for factors such as nonverbal IQ, age, formal educational background, and economic status.

"Children from deaf families do outperform their peers from hearing families in both English literacy and ASL. . . . This advantage persists even among the older children. Furthermore, our data suggest that the advantage of being from a deaf family is likely to result largely from fluency in ASL, for, when ASL ability is held constant, DP [deaf parent] children's superiority in English literacy almost disappears." (p. 45)

The results of the Mayberry and the Strong-Prinz studies have strong implications for the deaf students at the Bluefields school. Their studies show that the effects of late first-language acquisition can be expected to include underdeveloped linguistic memory skills, faulty strategies for making lexical choices, and a lower level of literacy.

Deafness and the Acquisition of Print Concepts
Hearing children use sounds to relate their spoken language to print, whereas deaf children are dependent on manual signs to relate to print. Deaf children must use different strategies to decode a sound-based writing system, since manual languages do not map onto alphabetic scripts as efficiently as do oral languages. For this reason, Andrews and Mason (1986) explain, deaf children are more likely to confuse visually similar letters instead of phonologically similar letters.

"A spoken word is composed of a sequence of sounds or phonemes, whereas a lexical sign is composed of "cheremes" (Stokoe, 1969), the formational parameters of hand configuration, location, movement, and position [emphasis added] which are executed at the same time (Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Stokoe, 1973, Battison, 1974). While phonemes have (for the most part) direct mapping onto alphabet letters, the cheremes of lexical signs combine to express concepts that can be tied to the visual discrimination of objects and actions." (p. 278)

Typically, the aim of literacy programs for the deaf is to help students conquer an oral language in order to access the written word of the dominant oral language. Not only must the children become bilingual, they must also become bilingual in both a signed and oral language. It should not be surprising, then, that "only 10% of the deaf school age population [in the United States] go beyond the fourth grade in reading achievement" (Tribes, Buchanan, and DeFrancesca cited in Andrews and Mason). The burden on deaf children who are learning to read goes well beyond decoding a written system. Andrews and Mason note that the isolation of most deaf children creates knowledge gaps in their worldview, which interferes with their ability to understand relationships between ideas. For example, deaf children perceive stories as lists of discrete lexical signs, unlike hearing children who more quickly perceive the structure as a series of connected events.

Clearly, it is a fortunate deaf child who is born into a signing family. Such a child enters school on a footing with a hearing child, i.e., with a solid language base to apply to the learning of reading. Ewoldt (1981) explains: "If knowledge of language and its function is essential for reading, a broad experiential base is crucial. . . . This experiential base is an advantage that the deaf child of deaf parents is more likely to have" (p. 51). These early signing deaf children share many reading behaviors with the hearing. Both groups of readers make errors of omission, insertion, and substitution. Believing that the function of reading is only for instruction, both groups answer the question "Why did the author write this story?"with "To teach us words."

To the title question "Deafness and Literacy: Why Can't Sam Read?", Erting (1992) answers that literacy is inseparable from the development of language. She quotes Bruner who asserts that the development of literacy is in tandem with the development of face-to-face communication competence. Literacy events occur alongside domestic chores (writing shopping lists, paying bills), as entertainment, and at school as the child "gradually develops as a reader/writer in everyday activity settings" (cited in Erting, p. 104). Learning literacy is a challenge for every child, since writing is also very different from everyday tasks. If this disunion...between the language of face-to-face communication and that of problematic for hearing children, it presents an even greater challenge to deaf children.

Much of the literature examines the difficulty of the signing child in decoding an alphabetic writing system...see Footnote 11...Several authors make a case for using fingerspelling as the bridge from sign to oral to written language. Most of the examples in the literature are based on observations of ASL signers attempting to access written English.

Footnote 11: It might be illuminating to look at deaf children acquiring a logographic writing system such as Chinese.

Wilcox (1994) observed BoMee, a young deaf student who tried to apply the phonology of ASL to solve her English reading problems. BoMee's strategy for reading English included finding features analogous to ASL phonemes. (Both signed and spoken words are composed of minimal contrasting units or phonemes, the smallest units of sound or sign that can distinguish two words.) For example, Wilcox reports how BoMee made this comparison between the sign NOT and the English written not:

"NOT is produced with an open-A handshape. The open A-handshape shares the feature [+spread] with Y. It contrasts with the regular A handshape used in fingerspelling and in signs such as WITH. BoMee demonstrated that the closed fingers of NOT can represent the English graphemes "n" and "o" and the thumb can represent "t". (p. 123)

The attempt to seek such parallels between the two languages is an extremely complex way of trying to decode an entire alphabetic writing system. As can be seen from another example of BoMee's decoding, this approach is in conflict with the structure of her native signed language. BoMee was introduced to the signed English suffix -ING in school. She had already acquired the ASL present progressive (verb plus head nod) as well as other tense and aspect forms. The tense/aspect marker in ASL is often placed at the beginning of a sentence: FINISH ME EAT ME, "I ate." Thus, BoMeeís translation of "I am eating" resulted in: ING ME EAT ME.

Young students like BoMee confront a tremendous challenge. To become literate, they must learn a second, spoken language, since their native ASL is not considered to be a written language. Thus, deaf students lag behind their hearing peers an average of six to seven years by the time they leave high school. Paul and Jackson (1993) report that literacy for the deaf plateaus at the fourth-grade level, and Prinz and Strong estimate that only 7% of deaf high school graduates reach a seventh-grade level or better. The literacy figures remain static for the deaf at least until they reach nineteen years of age (Wilson cited in King and Quigley).

It is important to note that these are reports of literacy rates for deaf students in advanced industrial countries with mandatory public education. The United States and Canada continue to maintain low levels of literacy despite the availability of multimedia and computer technology, new methods of detecting hearing loss, and advanced methods of amplification for the hearing impaired. It is apparent that the literacy rates are much lower for deaf populations in underdeveloped countries where the same level of wealth and technology are not applied to the education of the deaf.

Despite the challenges facing deaf people in their attempt to gain literacy, it is important not to underestimate the value of writing to the integrity of languages and their users. Wilcox points to the example of Carrington's 1981 study of Virginia Island Creole.

"[The] opportunity for the use of creole by the development of a writing system breaks the barrier that has shut out from information transfer, from 'language-hood' and from confidence, large numbers of people over several hundred years in this society, has shut them out from full communication within their society. . . . There is a new, a very deep need, for communication tools that allow people to share in the development of their society." (cited in Wilcox, p. 131)

He challenges the presumption that the only avenue to literacy open to deaf people is through the language of the majority (in this case, English).

"It is time for those concerned with Deaf students' struggles to find a voice to realize the importance of ASL literacy. . . . But it is still an unwritten language. This does not diminish ASL as a language. It is an untapped potential. We need an accepted ASL writing system, and we need to explore its use in Deaf education." (p. 134)

The Sutton SignWriting System
Many researchers have concluded that some form of written sign language would open the door to literacy for the deaf. Studies by Furth and others found that deaf readers could understand prose best when the syntax of the printed word was changed to the order of American Sign Language (cited in King and Quigley, 1985). However, this adaptation has not been incorporated in deaf literacy programs across the country even though deaf literacy levels remain very low.

Other researchers suggest that at least the initial reading instruction be connected to the native language of the deaf student. In this spirit, they propose many alternatives to the standard attempts to teach literacy through a second language, for instance, the use of signed videotapes as an alternate to learning reading or the use of "sign print", which consists of picture representations of signs along with standard English orthography.

One system is SignWriting, which uses visual symbols that represent the handshapes, movements, facial expressions, and body shifts of signed language, without the need of spoken translation or traditional script. The alphabet symbolizes lexical items and incorporates elements of signed languages, such as classifiers and eye and body shifts to indicate grammatical elements, that are difficult to express in scripts used for oral languages. For instance, SignWriting's creator Valerie Sutton, in the article "What is the difference between SignWriting and English Glosses?" gives an example of how inaccurate and confusing an English gloss of ASL would be, as compared to SignWriting:

"Let us take the sign for HELP. In the SignWriting ASL Dictionary, there are 34 conjugations, or variations of the verb HELP. Some of the entries are "to help", "I help you", "You help me", "They help each other", "They help us continuously", and so forth. Some of these variations involve torso and shoulder movement and facial expressions. All of them involve varying degrees of depth. All this can be recorded with SignWriting, but not with English gloss." (Sutton, SignWriting Web Site, Questions & Answers About SignWriting, 1997, p.8)

Compared to traditional means of representing signed languages, as found, for example, in the new and only dictionary of the signed language of Nicaragua, the Sutton system carries much more information in a shorthand form. In diagrams shown in the paper copy of this thesis (available upon request) signs written in SignWriting are compared with those as depicted in the Diccionario del Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua (Dictionary of the Sign Language of Nicaragua). Most signed languages set an invisible signing space framed by the face and lower chest. Since this is the default frame in SignWriting, the body is seldom noted, and then only in a symbolic manner rather than the more defined body drawings used in traditional dictionaries. For example, if the movement takes place at the shoulder level, the shoulder is expressed as a straight line in SignWriting. Additionally, the expressive viewpoint as seen from the point of view of the signer is assumed in SignWriting, rather than the viewpoint of the observer as in traditional dictionary entries. Similarly, since SignWriting uses an "alphabet" of features, linguistic information can be conveyed without drawing full facial expressions or body movements.

Facial expression as a linguistic feature of signed languages can be more accurately and easily symbolized in SignWriting than with full body depiction. An analysis of two written signs further reveals the phonetic information potential of the Sutton system. SAD in SignWriting tells the reader that the sign is made with the thumb touching the side of the face; that the hand begins in a position parallel to the wall with the back of the hand facing the signer; and that, as the hand slowly moves forward, it maintains contact with the face. The sign for ANGRY is executed with the fingers bent and palm facing the signer as the hand is pulled quickly from the face in a movement parallel to the wall. The traditional dictionary entry for ANGRY requires a bit of artistry to render the facial expression, while it can be shown in SignWriting with a simple curved line.

The organizers of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project seized upon Sutton SignWriting over other possible sign notation systems, since, as Judy Kegl explains, the Nicaraguans at the schools liked SignWriting because of its "deaf friendliness" and its applicability to purposes beyond research (personal communication, October 16, 1997).

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