...SignWriting in Nicaragua Directory...


November-December, 1998

Email Messages & Reports
about SignWriting in Nicaragua

...taken from the SignWriting List Archives...

Deaf student Judy Mejia, age 9, learning SignWriting
at the "Escuelita de Bluefields" in Nicaragua, in March, 1999.

Judy is demonstrating the sign for "Rivas", a city on the
Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. The sign is written in SignWriting
on the lower right corner of the blackboard.

 Email Messages
September, 1998

 Email Messages
October, 1998

Email Messages
Nov-Dec, 1998

Email Messages
Escuelita de Condega

Email Messages, November-December, 1998

Date: Mon, 2 Nov 1998 00:29:55 -0500
Sender: SignWriting List <SW-L@ADMIN.HUMBERC.ON.CA>
Subject: Re: a "proper" suggestion

In Nicaragua, we came up with the idea of underlining all proper names in
SW, much as proper nouns are capitalized in English. The need first became
apparent when we produced a text on Columbus and his three ships. The Nina
means "little girl", but by underlining it the students were clear that
"little girl" was just the name of the ship. Also, without underlining,
students were not always able to recognize proper names as such. They
would just think the sign was a word they didn't know, unless it was very
apparent from context that the word was someone's name or a geographical
location. Note, for example: People called Lindergh the lone eagle" vs.
People called Lindberg the Lone Eagle. We underline "Spain", but not
"spanish". We also underline initials: John Smith or simply J.S. --- James

-- James Shepard-Kegl

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:46:32 -0500
Sender: SignWriting List <SW-L@ADMIN.HUMBERC.ON.CA>
Subject: Re: a "proper" suggestion

Dear Valerie,

The rain/mudslide damage was centered on the Pacific side of Nicaragua,
mostly in the northwest. I phoned Bluefields this afternoon and they
apparently were more or less unaffected. As you can sense from the news
reports, however, the devastation in the northwest is incomprehensible.
(It's not just the thousands dead. These people depend upon well water.
Without drinking water, civilization collapses within days.) Judy performs
research in those areas, and in fact is scheduled to return next month --
that seems most unlikely now.

The students in Bluefields do not yet use SW between themselves. They are
at the reading level, but not the production (writing) level. Anselmo uses
it, but no one else as yet. The students spend substantial time reading
our texts, and this gives them whole word recognition. For the advanced
students, we have them learn how to type SW on the computer. This entails
hours of practice, as you can imagine. The next step is to use good old
fashioned pencil and paper. It is a process.

Bear in mind that our students are very late language learners. Anselmo,
for example, is the best Signwriter in the school, but his command of
Nicaraguan Sign Language is limited. He is a gifted individual, but he did
not begin language acquisition until he was 15. So, SW has been a
tremendous boon to him.

Ultimately, I believe that many of the students will use SW to communicate
with each other. We are ready to start experimenting with that next
session. It is all a step by step process -- just like learning to read
and write english. I am bemused by the frustration some of the
contributors to SW's computer chat line seem to express. It seems parents
or teachers who try to teach children SW expect instant gratification. Let
me be clear on this. I never expected a miracle from SW. I see it as a
bona fide and wonderful writing system for sign languages, and I expect
teaching it correctly will take patience and time. I studied readin n
writin throughout grade school and beyond,

I dunno how many texts we have produced. Some stuff is only a page or two.
Other material is fairly lengthy, as you know. We did The Little Engine
that Could in a day. Babar took longer. Moby Dick (a children's
illustrated adaption of about 15 actual pages of full text) will take us a
month to do right.

We are teaching SW to 7 and 8 year olds, as well as teens. So, we take it
slowly -- one step at a time.

I can't believe I'm up this late -- I'm working the polls from 6:30AM to
8:30PM tomorrow.

-- James Shepard-Kegl

Date: Fri, 6 Nov 1998 11:08:34 -0500
Sender: SignWriting List <SW-L@ADMIN.HUMBERC.ON.CA>
Subject: Re: Cheaper SW Books?

Books on a "shoestring"?? Here's what we do in Nicaragua -- not real fancy
but lot's nicer than photocopying: Upon completion of a translation, we
print out our translation on 8 1/2 x 11 label sheets and then, with
scissors for cropping, affix the labels right on the page of the book. Of
course, we can't distribute copies for every student that way, but then
that's why we call them "library books". Another advantage is that we
actually have to pay for the original -- so no copyright issues. (By the
way, NSLP obtains copyrights prior to reproducing -- compnaies issue them
pro forma.) Well, this means doing the translations yourselves -- but you
end up with a tolerably nice edition. _-

James SK

Date: Thu, 3 Dec 1998 20:49:25 -0500
Sender: SignWriting List <SW-L@ADMIN.HUMBERC.ON.CA>
Subject: Re: Silent News Columnist Seeking Some Feedback

These responses are by James Shepard-Kegl, not my wife Judy, although we
share the same e-mail address. Judy is the linguist and writes with more
compassion and patience. I tend to get a little acerbic at times, so
please bear with me and forgive me a bit -- I'm really pressed for time
lately and I am sending these answers without redrafting them. Thanks.

>1) What role(s) do you think SignWriting is playing in Deaf and hard of
>hearing children's education? Can you give specific examples?

Escuelita de Bluefields, the four year old school for Deaf students in
Bluefields, Nicaragua (Atlantic coast), has been teaching and using
SignWriting intensively for three years. Our situation and perspective is
somewhat different than that presented in the U.S school system, or that of
other industrialized nations -- or maybe not so really different afterall.
Deaf education began in Nicaragua around 1977, and in earnest around 1980
or so. Prior to 1979, at most a dozen Deaf Nicaraguans were receiving some
kind of exposure to education. With the 1979 revolution and the government
literacy crusade of the early eighties, schools were set up for several
hundred Deaf children. However, these schools were strictly oralist, and
no formal sign language system existed anywhere in the country. For
reasons that would energize any linguist, a sign language emerged
spontaneously among the hundreds of Deaf children who were brought
together. There are perhaps 600 speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language today
-- a rich language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. has been documenting the emergence
of this new language since 1986. This has been an essentially
investigative research project. In 1994, we changed are focus in
Bluefields from investigation to intervention. Nicaraguan Sign Language
{ISN -- for Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua) had not spread to Nicaragua's
rain forest region. However, the parents of a group of Deaf children in
Bluefields, the commercial center of the area, asked us to intercede. We
began conducting a language immersion program by transplanting ISN fluent
adults from Managua, the capital, to Bluefields. This project over time
blossomed into a full academic program. In 1996, at our request, Darlene
Clarke of the Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting came to Bluefields for
one month to introduce the class to SW. I also spent a week with Valerie
Sutton in San Diego to learn the system. (NSLP is currently setting up a
school in the center of the area of northwestern Nicaragua ravaged by
Hurricane Mitch. The school in Bluefields, and the new school in Condega
on the Pan American Highway, will be the only schools in Nicaragua using

So, the Deaf community in Bluefields is brand new. Our students range in
age from 5 to 37 -- and none of them had any prior experience in a school
for Deaf and few of them had any prior experience in any kind of school at
all. They all come to us as home signers only, and many are beyond
critical age for language acquisition. We employ only ISN fluent Deaf
faculty. We do not use hearing teachers except to assist the Deaf teachers
with content, as required. We are in the business of empowering Deaf
people. And, our primary objective is to give the students a first
language. We do not place much emphasis on Spanish beyond very basic
functional vocabulary recognition. We do place extreme emphasis on
literature -- Greek classics, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, etc. We also teach
in great detail history: ancient civilizations, precolumbian civilizations
in the Americas, the emergence of all world religions and their particular
histories, colonization, slavery, World War II, current events, and so
forth. All of this is taught in sign language exclusively.

We also teach ISN grammar and syntax, i.e., concepts of parts of speech
(nouns, adjectives, etc.) and word order (subject-object-verb, as a general
rule in ISN.)

And, we teach students to read their first language -- not Spanish. Rather
than force our students to struggle with reading Spanish -- an utterly
foreign language and one quite inaccessible -- we want our students to
ENJOY reading. Our adaptations of stories range from very simplistic to
quite sophisticated. Our version of Babar the Elephant is a thorough
translation of the original text. We have translated several children's
stories, but also have designed our own texts on Nicaraguan history. At
the present time, we have just completed a lengthy text concerning Charles
Lindbergh's historic flight as a reading lesson for the upcoming January

So, if your question concerns how SW helps children learn to read English
(or Spanish), our first response is that we really don't care all that
much. To us, SW teaches children to read their own language, builds
self-esteem, makes new information accessible, and is fun to use. In fact,
our teachers depend on it to teach stories and new material, in the exact
smae way that hearing teachers need written english to read stories to
hearing english speaking children. SW also enable us to teach complex
grammatical concepts in sign language.

Having said all this, SW obviously makes it easier for Deaf students to
learn spanish vocabulary. Afterall, learning spanish is 100% rote -- there
are no phonetic clues when you are deaf. (Sw in entire phonetic --
"visually phonetic".) Let's say you want to learn spanish words for
different foods. It's a lot easier to have each word written in SW, SO YOU
KNOW WHAT THE WORD MEANS, alongside the spanish equivalent. Otherwise, you
end up with a meaningless word list, or the teacher must resort to pictures
-- easy with concret words, but quite difficult with verbs, adverbs,
abstract concepts, etc.

When I studied French in high school, the teacher never tried to keep the
meaning of the french word a secret. We were always told the english
equivalent -- or given a bi-lingual dictionary to figure it out. In
Bluefields, we try not to handicap our students, but extend them the same
respect I enjoyed as a student of French here in the U.S.

Most schools for Deaf spend some 12 years with lots of staffing and speech
therapists in an effort to maximize each student's ability to communicate
in the dominant hearing language. Whether that is appropriate approach or
not is an ethical and education debate that we in Bluefields have been
spared. We don't have the funds, the staffing or the time. Only a few of
our students come to us as very young children. Most of our students enter
school for the first time as teenagers or adults.

> 2) Several schools for the Deaf are participating in this SignWriting
>program. If you are participating in such a program, it may be too early
>to tell as yet, but is there any evidence that SignWriting has contributed
>in any way to your students' ability to read and write in English? (If any
>articles have been printed showing that statistically SignWriting does
>contribute, please let me know!)

Our advanced SW students enjoy a spanish vocabulary after a few months far
in excess of any deaf people we have met who have attended the full time
traditional schools for Deaf in Nicaragua. This is mostly because the
students use the spanish to access the SW sign in the computerized
dictionary file. (Type C-A-S-A, and the ISN sign for house appears. In
fact, type C-A, and you need only run down the page to you get to C-A-S-A.
So use of the computer dictionary to write in SW reinforces spanish
vocabulary recognition.) Because we are able to teach grammatical
concepts in ISN using SW as a teaching tool, our students can grasp grammar
rules easier. Who first learns what an adjective means in a second
language rather than in their first language, anyway? We find it easier to
explain aspects of spanish grammar for which their may not be ISN
equivalents easier because our students already appreciate what rules of
grammar are. However, really, we teach spanish grammar only to a select
few advanced students, and then with insufficient time commitment to yield
valid results.

> 3) Does SignWriting still face continuing controversy, ridicule,
>etc even today? From what sources, usually? (i.e., Deaf people/leaders,
>hearing people, administrators of deaf schools, etc). What is(are) the most
>common argument(s) against SignWriting?

The elite of the Deaf community in Managua are exceedingly envious of the
students and teachers in Bluefields.

> 4) What do you usually say in response to their argument(s) against

Our students are oblivious to the controversy and therefore not handicapped
by it.

> 5) Won't the rapid pace of technology, including Internet technology,
>simply wipe SignWriting out, reducing it obsolete? Why or why not? After
>all, videocameras (useful for signed ASL) are shrinking rapidly in both
>size and cost, as are computer chips, and new technology is continually
>popping up to replace old ways of doing things.

Rapid pace of technology? Where are you? We have electricity, some places
have phones, I met someone once with a flush toilet -- didn't work, though.

> 6) What flaws does SignWriting and/or its software still have that
>to be worked out? (Since you are all obviously proponents of SignWriting,
>I expect positive comments in general; however, every program has its
>kinks that it needs to work out, and SignWriting is no exception! :-) )

We tweaked up the system a little bit, we like to think -- not the
software, but some of the punctuation and other symbols. We left the
original system about 99% intact. I'm too much of a computer illiterate to
comment knowledgably on software.

> 7) What is this new profession, "Sign Language Journalism", and
>how many
>Deaf and/or hearing reporters are in this particular field in North America
>and/or the rest of the world, that you know of? And how many readers are
>there, approximately, who read materials written in this way?
> 8) As you well know, D/hoh children must learn to write, take speech
>therapy, and learn ASL if they are in a Deaf school or a Bi-Bi program. Now
>you're asking these children to learn yet another form of language: the
>written version of ASL. One argument that could be made against
>SignWriting is that it's even more work for these children AND their
>teachers, and thus reducing the time for learning written English, which
>the children need. What is your response?

My first reaction is not printable. The problem with SW is that it
threatens to put Deaf teachers on a par with their hearing counterparts.
If Deaf teachers have to learn to read English, a second language, then why
shouldn't hearing teachers have to learn to read ASL -- for them a second
language. In fact, since hearing people are not blind, SW is easier for
them to learn than it is for Deaf people to learn written english -- a
coding system based on sounds. So, the playing field still isn't level --
just more level than before.

-- James Shepard-Kegl

...two schools for the Deaf in Nicaragua...

Escuelita de Bluefields
Escuelita de Condega

...were founded by...
...and are coordinated by...

Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.
James Shepard-Kegl, Coordinator
52 Whitney Farms Road
North Yarmouth, Maine, 04097, USA
(207) 846-8801 voice or tty
(207) 846-8688 fax
Email: kegl@maine.rr.com

...SignWriting in Nicaragua Directory...