A STUDY OF SIGNWRITING ACQUISTION
Although the children and young adults at the Escuelita de Bluefields are acquiring their first language at an age well beyond that of most children, they are learning to read and write their new language. The Escuelita organizers assume that students can achieve some level of literacy despite their late exposure to language, that is, if literacy is defined as reading and writing their new signed language. I reasoned that at this early stage of language and literacy acquisition, most students would not yet have attained any level of proficiency in reading or writing. However, I hypothesized that many would be able to demonstrate word recognition or word deciphering skills if they were presented with written problems.
The students at the Escuelita of Bluefields travel from homes at the far reaches of the Atlantic Coast to attend the school. Just off the coast of Bluefields lies Corn Island, an island of pretty beaches that is visited by many vacationing Nicaraguans. Researchers of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project have not yet determined the extent of inherited deafness on the island. However there appears to be a substantial number of deaf people, and several of the younger ones travel to Bluefields to attend the Escuelita.
Several have come from Puerto Cabezas, which lies up the coast near the Honduran border. Here, another cluster of deaf people attends the Escuela Maureen Courtney, which groups students with mental and hearing disabilities into one classroom. Around 1993, the teacher divided the classroom and her time between the deaf students on one side of the room and the students with mental handicaps on the other. In 1995, Judy Kegl visited the school and observed that the instructor had begun to encourage the use of sign language in the classroom, but she knew only some stilted signing and used an old signing dictionary as the basis for the lessons. She used no syntax in her instruction and never elicited grammar from the students. There were nine deaf students at the school, which was not a large enough cohort in relation to the oral students to generate a pidgin, much less a new language. Before the Escuelita 1997 summer session began, three Escuelita instructors flew to Puerto Cabezas to set up a three-week language workshop. They taught grammar, signed stories and introduced the mechanics of SignWriting. Nine to twelve current and ex-students from the Maureen Courtney School attended the workshop. Two of these attended several weeks of the summer 1997 session in Bluefields.
Up river from Bluefields, in a community east of the Laguna de Perlas (Pearl Lagoon) near the town of Orinoco, there lives an extended family with four documented cases of deafness(three brothers and a cousin. A rich home sign seems to have developed, which is especially strong between the two younger brothers (approximate ages nineteen and twenty two) and their family.
The largest group of students are residents of Bluefields itself. Despite the larger population of the deaf, historically they have been isolated from each other and from the hearing community. Although several deaf students attended the David Sanchez School for War Victims from about 1992 through 1996, the school could not provide a rich enough environment to generate language. In fact, teachers did not tolerate signing among the students. Around 1993 fingerspelling was introduced, but it was used only to practice the alphabet, and it was not connected to learning reading and writing. A few of these students were very strong home signers, but they only interacted about thirty minutes a day during lunch. This limited interaction did spur the development of a few distinct signs but went no further. Antonio, one of the students (and now a teacher at the Escuelita), reports that the girls clustered in friendship groups at the school, but the boys did not socialize at school or outside of the school (Kegl, personal communication). In 1997, the public school in Bluefields run by FONIF grouped all students with disabilities in a single classroom. The teacher has a limited home sign vocabulary but knows no signed language. The deaf students attend the half-day sessions of the FONIF school and the remaining half day at the Escuelita when it is in session.
Two of the students from the tiny community of El Bluff travel across the lagoon by ponga to Bluefields to attend the school. This area is the end of a peninsula turned into an island by Hurricane Joan that devastated the area in 1987. The distance from the school is great enough that the students stay with the other resident students in Bluefields.
The Escuelita language school was inaugurated in the summer of 1995. Its first ten-week academic program, conducted completely in sign language, has been followed by month-long winter sessions and ten-week summer sessions for the past two years. The organizers' goal is to provide a language-generating environment that will stimulate the acquisition of sign language. They emphasize that language is a vehicle for the communication of ideas rather than an end in itself. The curriculum includes, for example, the signed stories of Achilles, Cyrano de Bergerac, and other fictional and historic figures. Several pieces of literature and music from Nicaragua and the United States have been loosely translated, transcribed, and incorporated into the curriculum. High action historical movies have been edited to remove long passages of dialogue and are simultaneously translated into sign language. Students receive basic instruction in math and the history of Nicaragua, as well as guest lectures on topics such as AIDS awareness and art.
The test population for this study of SignWriting acquisition included the Escuelita students in the advanced class who have had the most exposure to the SignWriting lessons, and, for comparison, a group of students recently exposed to SignWriting. Students with cognitive problems were excluded from the test population of fifteen students.
The biographic material available on these students is often sketchy. Language differences are one barrier since data gatherers work in at least three languages. Spanish is not only the official language, it is the language shared by most inhabitants of the Atlantic coast. However, it is the second language of the creole population and the native populations (Miskitu, etc.). The area's illiteracy rate is still very high. Many families keep no written records, and often there is no memory (by the deaf or the hearing) of birth dates or ages of any family members. Hurricanes and other natural calamities periodically wipe out written records even when they have been maintained; for instance, all of the records of the David Sanchez School for War Victims were lost in the 1987 hurricane. Of course, eliciting information from the students themselves can be problematic since their ability to communicate is often minimal...see Footnote 12... The short biographies that follow include little information regarding socioeconomic levels since all of these students live in relative poverty. Unless otherwise noted, the students reside in Bluefields, and they have had no formal education apart from the Escuelita.
Footnote 12: Communication difficulties lead to much misinformation. The three Orinoco-area brothers are from a territory that was alive with Contra activity during the civil war in Nicaragua. The "Two Brothers" (as we called the younger brothers) signed to us the harrowing lives they led during the war. Men with guns came to the area and took the food. Local people poisoned the food that the unsuspecting invaders stole. We assumed these invaders were the Contra forces. When one of the hearing/speaking brothers visited us at the school, he explained that it had been the Sandinista soldiers (who were perceived by many as an invading force since they had not been present in the area before the revolution) who had stolen the food.
The study participants can be divided roughly into four groups: (a) fluent signers of Idioma de Senas, (b) pre-puberty students who entered the Escuelita at an early age and are expected to acquire the fully articulated language, (c) students with late age of entry to the Escuelita who have attended the school since its origin and are in transition to sign language, and (d) recent-entry older students who have only recently been exposed to Nicaraguan Sign Language.
Fluent Signers of Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua
Harry comes from a creole English-speaking family from Managua. He entered the school in Managua at a point when pidgin had been established and the fully signed language had begun to emerge. Harry traveled to New Jersey twice in 1997 to aid in SignWriting translation and other Sign Language Project work, and he taught at the Escuelita during the 1997 sessions.
Benny is the first Deaf child in a family of deaf signers of Idioma de Senas. At the time of this study he was eleven years old and had attended school in Managua for eight years. His aunt and uncle...students from the Managua school in the 1980's...are both fluent signers, so he has been exposed to a full language from birth. Ann Senghas reports her first meeting with Benny: "His signing was the most fluid and fluent signing I have seen in Nicaragua. . . . [We] can see the layers of structure beneath it. Whenever we watch [his] tapes, we discover forms we had not noticed before" (p. 38). Benny's aunt Ida (23) is an active member of ANSNIC, the deaf association based in Managua. She was the ANSNIC representative teacher at the summer 1997 Escuelita session where she taught the youngest children. She also observed a few SignWriting classes during her session at the Escuelita.
Pre-Puberty Students with Two Years Attendance
At the time of this study, Jesus was ten years old and in transition to full signed language. Although he now participates in the advanced Escuelita classes, he made no signs (but he did voice mama and papa) when language researchers first made contact with him in 1995. In the 1997 summer session, he had a high absentee rate apparently due to illness. Donato (13), a Corn Island resident, is a home signer in transition to signed language. His only schooling has been at the Escuelita, which he has attended since 1996. Fellow Corn Islander Donna (10) had never attended school until she became a student at the Escuelita, which she has attended since its origin. She is an Idioma de Senas-level communicator in transition from home sign. Her younger hearing sister attended the summer 1997 session with her.
Post-Puberty Students with Two Years Attendance
Antonio (18), one of the most interesting and exceptional of the students, first came into contact with signed language at the age of fifteen when he enrolled in the Escuelita. He also attended the David Sanchez School for War Victims until 1996 and the FONIF classes for students with disabilities.
At first contact with researchers, Antonio communicated in home signs. During the next three years he leaped over several stages of language acquisition and has adapted grammatical conventions from Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua, although with only partial mastery. Judy Kegl notes that he is very different from the first generation of signing cohorts in Managua.
"The door has closed for his capacity for native acquisition of language, but he is an important single case study. Certainly Antonio is running on great intelligence, but he is not running on language. He is cognizing outside the language domain. He has so many compensatory mechanisms, so he is able to adapt pieces of the grammar." (Kegl, personal communication)
Despite his attendance at schools prior to his participation at the Escuelita, Antonio knew no math and recognized no written Spanish words. Today he can perform math calculations including some algebra. Most interesting for this study is his ability to produce many Spanish words in writing, which he has accessed through learning SignWriting. For the 1997 summer session, Antonio joined the Escuelita teaching staff, and he made a four-month visit to the United States to work with researchers of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project later that year.
Seventeen-year-old Diana has attended all three schools available to the deaf in Bluefields: David Sanchez, FONIF (since 1996), and the Escuelita (since 1995). She has good signing skills, which are still developing, and she was in all the advanced Escuelita classes in 1997 except math. Eddie has acquired fair to good signing skills through his participation at the school, despite his late exposure to signed language in January 1996 at the age of nineteen years, and his low attendance. Rosa (35) is the oldest student, and, because of her age, was probably not included in any of the schooling organized in Bluefields before the opening of the Escuelita. She encountered the school by chance one day in 1995 while passing by a group of signing students who were meeting on the porch of a house. Intrigued by their signing, she walked up and introduced herself. She has been a student at the school since then and was in transition from home sign to signing in 1997. Stan (22) is one of the Corn Island students and has attended the Escuelita for two years. He was first exposed to Idioma de Senas in 1987 when he attended the Villa Libertad vocational school in Managua for half a year. At the time of this study, he was in transition from home sign to signing and had just joined the advanced class. Yara (16) is a Corn Island resident who had no schooling before entering the Escuelita. During 1997 she was in transition from home sign.
Dani (13) is one of a small group of home signers from the Escuela Maureen Courtney in Puerto Cabezas, which she has attended from 1992 to the present. She has learned to print her name clearly and produce some Spanish words in script. Fellow Puerto Cabezas resident Faith (22) communicates in home sign. Although she attended the Maureen Courtney School years ago, her first exposure to signed language was at the Sign Language Project workshop in Puerto Cabezas, which she and Dani attended in the summer of 1997. Pablo, a logger and farmer who lives up a river west of Laguna de Perlas, is the middle one of three deaf brothers. Neither Pablo (22) nor his brothers had received any schooling until the 1997 session of the Escuelita. When they entered the school, they could not recognize or write their names, although they carried with them a written list of their full names...see Footnote 13...We were forced to guess which name belonged to each brother, which resulted in a week spent teaching one brother to write the name of his sibling rather than his own. During his course of study at the Escuelita, Pablo incorporated several words he had learned from the other students into his home sign system. None of the brothers could perform math functions, and at the time of this study, none seemed to have the concept of counting money in fives or tens.
Footnote 13: Deaf people usually have a name sign as well as an oral/written name. The name signs of the students typically refer to an outstanding physical characteristic: BEAUTIFUL, MAN, BLACK FACE, WHITE SKIN GLASSES, TALL WOMAN. These are often initialized name signs as with Donna who was given the "d" sign executed with a hand movement at the top of her head to indicate the braids she usually wore. The three brothers had already been given name signs within their family. Other students enter the school ignorant of their oral names and without name signs. In a sort of ritualized naming session, the students choose an appropriate sign for the unnamed.
A picture of each student participant has been drawn in detail to emphasize the uniqueness of each member of the test population. The important differences in their educational backgrounds, age of exposure to language (i.e., signed language), current age, level of language achieved to date, and family literacy were uncontrolled factors in this study.
Methods and Materials
The current study was designed to assess the ability to identify a target sign/word from among several similar choices in SignWriting. This baseline study is intended for use in a future assessment of reading skills. Other baseline studies have been conducted at the Escuelita, including the videotaping of the students' signed description of the story line of two short silent video cartoons when the students first encounter researchers from the Sign Language Project. Their responses to the same cartoons have been taped in subsequent years to chart their changing language. Students have not yet been tested on SignWriting acquisition.
I faced several challenges in designing a meaningful test. How could I measure the success of a reading program for members of a population who had only recently begun to absorb their first language? An additional challenge was my limited signed vocabulary and lack of understanding of the syntax of the language, which severely limited the type of test I could design and administer. An instrument designed to test reading in context, for example, would be difficult to construct and almost impossible for me to assess. However, I did have an understanding of the mechanics of SignWriting, and an offer of assistance from English-speaking signers of Idioma de Senas. Together we designed an instrument that would test recognition of commonly used words in isolation from a text. The design was further modified with the help of Romy Spitz, a clinical psychologist and professor from the University of Kansas, who visited Bluefields in the summer of 1997 to test the students' cognitive development. She is fluent in American Sign Language and is learning Nicaraguan sign language. The final instrument tests for the recognition of several salient features in signed language that can be represented in SignWriting.
The multiple-choice test of 55 sign-written words presents six options for each word: (a) correct answer, (b) handshape error, (c) movement error, (d) orientation error, (e) location error, and (f) a foil (nonsense sign). James Shephard Kegl designed the SignWriting error choices; an example of the English equivalent of such choices would be "rate", "rot", "tar", "rta" and a nonsense foil for the target word "rat". Each test item (the six multiple choices) is presented opposite a photograph or drawing depicting the target word. The tests do not need to be timed, but each session should be videotaped for future analysis. Researchers can then judge whether the students relied on word recognition or whether they analyzed each choice.
The tests were administered twice to the student participants, two weeks apart, in mid- and late-August 1997. The original design called for administering the test only once to each participant. However, many unexpected difficulties arose during the first round of testing. For example, several of the drawings did not clearly elicit the target word, which created confusion about which was the target word. The tester now presents the drawing while simultaneously signing the target word.
The results report the responses of ten participants to the first test and fifteen participants to the second. (Five members of the study group took only the second test.) Only forty-five of the original test items were included in the analysis as a result of problems noted above. These are words commonly signed at the Escuelita, with many appearing in written form in class lessons.
Above. Diccionario entry and SignWriting test item for YELLOW (AMARILLO).
The first depiction in the above diagram is the Diccionario representation of YELLOW (AMARILLO), which is included here for readers' information but is not a part of the test. Rather, a yellow-colored scriggle is shown on the test to elicit the sign YELLOW. The second entry is the test item YELLOW with the six written choices, which are presented in random order on the test. The handshape for the correct sign is the initialized "A" (for the Spanish AMARILLO), which is circled twice with the back of the hand toward the signer (indicated by the blackened hand symbol). The handshape error substitutes the initialized "I" for the correct "A" sign. The third option substitutes a tensely held sign for the required circular movement. In the orientation error, the hand reverses to orient the palm toward the signer (indicated by the white shape). The location error uses the correct handshape, orientation, and movement, but places the sign in front of the face rather than at the default chest position. Finally, the foil is an entirely different sign indicating a salute-like hand touching the side of the forehead and moving forward parallel to the floor.
Table I (not posted on this web page, but available upon request) reports the results of both tests for each participant, grouped by age of exposure to Idioma de Senas. The test results list the number of correct responses for each target word, the number of errors by type, and the correlation of correct answers and error types between the first and second tests. Two of those who took only the second test received a shortened version because they were unfamiliar with the written words, and/or they were unable to grasp the task. In these cases, the reduced number of test items is indicated. Other participants among the original group were excluded from the results because they appeared to have cognitive problems in addition to language deprivation.
A quick review of the table shows that only a few test participants exhibited a clear recognition of the target words. Four members of the study group scored at least 60% (a minimum of 27 target words correctly identified): Antonio, Benny, Dani, and Harry. Antonio correctly identified all of the 45 target words for 100% accuracy on his second test. Benny, the only native signer in the test group who was exposed to language from birth, scored 43 correct of the 45 items for 95% accuracy on his second test. Harry, with a high score of 38, reached 84% accuracy. Dani's highest score of 33 reached 76% accuracy. Jesus scored just below the 60% mark with a high of 26 of the 45 words accurately identified. The scores of the remaining 10 participants ranged from 21 to only 1 correctly identified words.
Even though no feedback was given during or after either test, it might be expected that the participants would perform better on the second test because of familiarity with the test items or with the testing procedure. In fact, six of those who took the test both times scored higher the second time, and, of the four achieving 60% plus accuracy, three (Antonio, Benny and Harry) performed better on the second trial. However, Dani's score dropped from an initial 33 words correctly identified on the first round to 29 words on the second round. In general, there was very little correlation of answers between the two tests. For example, Donato, who scored 10 on the first and 17 on the subsequent test, chose correct answers for only 4 of the same target words on both tests. Stan repeated only 4 correct responses on both tests, and only 9 of his many errors were duplicated on the second test. Yara duplicated only half of her correct responses from the first test.
The many uncontrolled variables in this small population make it difficult to pin down a particular feature that could have predicted these test results, although some of the test results were predictable from the writing behaviors observed in class. Nor was the test design powerful enough to assess the students' understanding of the myriad mundane uses of reading and writing: giving and receiving notes, directions, recipes, homework, etc. It is important to remember that this series of tests was not designed to assess levels of literacy but to measure the ability to grasp the fundamental features of SignWriting in the native language. In general, the test results support the hypothesis that even beginning signers can be taught to recognize written signs.
As might be expected, the group of fluent signers outperformed those with very recent exposure (with the exception of Dani). Although Ida and Harry are both native signers, their education was delivered orally in the Managua school, a means of instruction that could not have imparted much factual information. However, Harry's involvement as Escuelita instructor for the last two years has advanced his general education. Lack of experience with test-taking clearly has an effect on Harry's performance on the tests. He did not appear to analyze the options presented in the test, rather his choices seemed to be made by very rapid sight recognition. A bigger hindrance is that he does not view literacy as a useful tool in his every day world. For example, he does not leave notes or write letters even when he is far from his home in Managua for long periods.
Benny has had many advantages over the other participants; the most important is that his fluent signing stems from infancy. His Managua school instruction is in Nicaraguan sign language, although teachers have varying levels of sign language proficiency. He recognizes several common Spanish words and is able to compute math problems. Since the Managua schools do not use any form of writing sign, his training in SignWriting comes only from the two sessions of the Escuelita he attended in 1997. Like all the other participants, Benny has not been "schooled" in taking tests, yet his Escuelita classroom participation indicated that he would perform well on the test.
Learning literacy in sign does not automatically flow from fluency in the language, as is clear from Ida's test results. The summer of 1997 was Ida's first familiarization with the SignWriting system, but she spent most of her Escuelita time instructing the newer students in signed word recognition rather than in SignWriting classes. Her participation in the school was as a teacher to the new children and as a model signer to the others. She seemed to approach the test taking as a critic of the written options rather than as a student/participant in the SignWriting lessons.
Pre-Puberty Students with at Least Two Years Attendance
All three, Donato, Donna, and Jesus, entered the Escuelita at an early enough age that they will probably acquire language at an advanced level. At this point though, they both lag far behind most hearing children in reading, writing, and other academic subjects. Such late language acquisition clearly retards the learning of many skills. Jesus (with a high score of 26 correct) is beginning to understand the writing system, but his learning is hampered by low school attendance. Corn Island residents Donna and Donato do not attend any school when they return home, so their language development will depend upon their interaction in the emerging Deaf Community on the island.
Post-Puberty Students with at Least Two years Attendance
Of this group, Antonio is clearly the strongest in his language and literacy skills. Not only did he score 100%, but he exhibits a growing talent for writing and reading SignWriting stories. His progress can be judged by his having joined the Escuelita teaching staff in 1997. James Shephard Kegl often relies upon Antonio's judgment in determining the clarity of the newly constructed SignWriting spelling. Although he is a very late language learner, Antonio has leaped over several stages in acquiring signed language. In less than three years of instruction he has absorbed a complex language system although not with native-like fluency. His ability to write individual Spanish words has risen from his knowledge of SignWriting. Antonio's achievements appear extraordinary when one considers that he has only begun acquiring language since he was fifteen.
The scores of the other post-puberty two-year-plus students are far below Antonio's, with Diana, Rosa and Yara's high scores of 19, 17 and 18, respectively. What can explain this gap? I return to the apparent exceptional ability of Antonio to grasp language, which seems to have opened the door to literacy for him. Other subjective factors such as the desire to work at solving word problems certainly play a role. Antonio carries a notebook and produces unsolicited very short tales and has begun to write letters. The other students do not imitate these activities.
Students with Recent Exposure to Sign Language
Dani's test results are extraordinary. She was earlier identified as having only recently been introduced to sign language. Her sign language and practice in SignWriting were only two months old at the time of the first test. Yet Dani hit 76% accuracy on her first test, far above many of those who have been exposed to sign language and SignWriting for over two years. What can explain this? Is home sign a rich enough language base for learning reading? Kegl (1997) explained that the definition of home sign is problematic. Perhaps subjects should be classified as home signers only up to the point where there is contact with other deaf people. She asked, "Was it strictly home sign at the Bluefields School for War Victims or at the Puerto Cabezas school? No, since they had developed some agreement on words. Maybe instead the students have a pidgin somewhere between home sign and the early beginning levels of language" (personal communication). To make a clearer assessment of Dani's reading aptitude, it would be important to test the level of Spanish literacy she gained in her earlier schooling. When Spitz releases the results of the cognitive tests she administered to the students, perhaps other reasons for these extraordinary differences in learning SignWriting will be revealed.
SignWriting and Dialects
The administering of this SignWriting test also revealed some interesting aspects of sign language and SignWriting in Nicaragua. Because Nicaraguan signs are being written for the first time, naturally there was some disagreement expressed over the "spelling" of a few target words. The English equivalent of the search for the best SignWriting spelling might be alternate spellings of "cough" such as: "couf", "koff", "cawf", etc. Also, some dialectal differences that are beginning to emerge between the East and West Coast signs were exposed. It is too early to tell whether the Atlantic Coast Deaf will adopt the new Managua signs or whether the old signs will survive as dialectal differences. However, some Managua signs were already significantly different enough from the Bluefields signs by 1997 that a few test questions were invalidated and omitted from the final test results. (See the Appendix for regional differences in the signs for a few common words.) In a few instances, native signer Ida refused to respond to the test item because she rejected all the options provided. Likewise, many signs are becoming more abstract with time. For example, the Managua-based Diccionario shows one-part signs for HOT DOG, CRY, and CARROT, which are still two-part signs in Bluefields. On the other hand, PIG, a two-movement word in Managua is simplified in the Bluefields area (as shown in the Appendix, which is not posted on the web site. A copy is available through snail mail upon request). These dialectal differences should be expected. There remains a vast geographic and cultural divide between the two Nicaraguas, and Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua is still a new and largely unwritten language signed by a people whose Community is less than two decades old.
In their study of the relationship of ASL to English literacy, Strong and Prinz observed that "the acquisition of spoken and written language continues to be a major obstacle to academic achievement and vocational success for deaf individuals throughout the world" (p. 37). This is an understatement when applied to the deaf Costenos before language and the written word were opened up to them through the Escuelita. For the first time in their lives, knowledge outside of their immediate experience became available to them through their new signed language and through their growing ability to read.
While this study did not reveal which characteristics might determine rapid or successful acquisition of literacy among the Atlantic Coast Deaf, it did show that, with training, many can learn the rudiments of reading . Further, there is evidence that, for some, achievement of "sign literacy" may open the door to literacy in a spoken language. Antonio could not recognize or produce Spanish written words even after years of pre-Escuelita schooling. Today he possesses an expanding ability to write words in Spanish (and most recently English) through his acquisition of SignWriting.
The organizers of the Escuelita de Bluefields are helping to spur the development of a Community of the Deaf on the Atlantic Coast. Their ambitious aim is to bring language, literacy, and academic knowledge to people who have been isolated from society and each other, and who have been barred from gaining knowledge except through their own direct experience. Some students will learn to read, while others will continue to struggle just to communicate in their new first language. Whatever the results of future tests of these students' achievements, there can be no doubt of the success of the language program. A group of deaf students laughing and animatedly signing as they walk home from a day at school is a real measure of success. I look forward to the day when the Deaf Costenos write messages and letters to each other, take class notes, and demand translation of more literature into 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:
Summary Abstract Thesis Chapter 1 Thesis Chapter 2 Thesis Chapter 3 References