Nicaraguan Sign Language: One of the world’s youngest languages

Nicaraguan Sign Language is one of the world’s youngest languages. Until the first Deaf school in 1977, the Nicaraguan Deaf community was isolated and languageless. After the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, Nicaraguan Sign was spontaneously created by deaf children gathered together in oralist schools run by East German teachers.

Their attempts to get the children to talk and lipread failed miserably but they invited Dr Judy Shepard-Kegl, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Southern Maine, to analyse and spread Nicaraguan Sign throughout the country. She was accompanied and helped by her husband James.

I interviewed the pair of them to find out how they went about their mission.

Dr Shepard-Kegl explained how she got started:

“I was planning to fly to Nicaragua way back in the 80s, after the revolutionary embargo and a group of people from MIT called ‘Linguists for Nicaragua’ went down and while there, they were approached by the ministry of education to ask if they had anyone who could take charge of the situation with deaf people in the country at the time. They asked me and I went down.”

She described what life was like for deaf children:

“Before the 1980s being deaf meant being isolated in the home. They didn’t have access to education, the population tended to accept deaf people but they were isolated, not even involved in the church or other social activities. 

Signing wasn’t banned, but deaf people were juvenilised. Most people in the country were poor and without access to public education.”

She explained how necessity forced the schools to use the oralist method:

“The people that were there giving support after the revolution in Nicaragua were East German. The East German schools were very strongly orally based, the Russians were too. The people that were on hand in Nicaragua were people who believed in an oralist system. They didn’t have a choice over which system to use. Their goal was a fourth-grade education for everyone.”

Yuri was one of Judy’s deaf students who graduated from high school in America. She returned and became an itinerant teacher on the island of Ometepe. She explained that while oralism was the preferred method, signing wasn’t banned like it has been in America:

“Before the revolution, there was no consideration of deaf people involved in society. After the revolution, there was encouragement and involvement but there was ignorance about the best way to educate. 

I remember when I went down to Managua I went into the vocational school for deaf kids, I was given free rein, I could communicate with whatever I wanted to. But, when I went into the elementary school, I was told by the ministry you can go in there, you can talk to people and observe, but you cannot talk to people about adopting sign language as opposed to the oral method that they were using. And the reason for this wasn’t that they believed the oral method was perfect, the reason was that teachers were so confused about what to do and what not to do, they had lost so many teachers to the ‘brain drain’ that they didn’t want to confuse anyone. 

So I was given permission to observe, interact and film in the playground which was where they really were communicating with gestures and sign language. We brought in teachers of the deaf and deaf people from the community which facilitated teachers learning signs from deaf people, that I was allowed to do.”

I asked Dr Shepard-Kegl if the deaf children of deaf parents had a massive advantage over the others. Her answer surprised me:

“In first world countries, 4-10% of deaf people have deaf parents. It is thought throughout most of the world that deaf kids with deaf parents have a sort of universal passport to deaf culture. I’m going to shake that up.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, there were no deaf kids with deaf parents, none. This was an isolated group, a deaf child with deaf parents the odds are they would be taken out of the family and raised by someone else. There were multiple deaf siblings in one family so there was definitely a genetic component. With that level of stigma, deaf people didn’t even get to interact in church, never mind finding and marrying other deaf people and raising children. I actually offered $50 to anyone who could bring me a deaf child with deaf parents and there were none. It was going to be deaf children below the age of five who would give birth to this language.”

This crucial difference led to a culture clash involving the Nicaraguan Sign Dictionary and what it means to be Deaf.

“The Swedish Deaf Association sent their president, a deaf man from Argentina. His parents were deaf, he had six deaf siblings and he was working on a Nicaraguan Sign dictionary in the University of Cordoba. He came in as an advisor for the dictionary, and he was fluent in Argentinian Sign. He was given an office in the association and from day one there were issues. 

I came down six months later. The four people who were in charge of the Deaf Association and the dictionary were supposed to work with him on the development. His job was to help them put the signs in order. 

They gave him the cold shoulder. They would have meetings but they never wholeheartedly welcomed him into the Deaf community. He was supposed to finish it in six months, after six months he wrote a fax to the Swedish Deaf Association saying he was having trouble building a rapport with these people, things are going very slowly, I need an extension in my time here. The Deaf Association, who had two sisters of the president to act as interpreters. They were livid, they wrote to the Swedish Deaf Association saying: ‘No, we don’t want him here, we didn’t ask him here, we want to do this ourselves, get rid of him.’

The Swedish Deaf Association was worried because if you get rid of your advisor, the money is tied to the person who advises, so they were very concerned. They asked if I could be a sort of Ombudsman, I said OK, we had a meeting. I said there’s always a bit of office politics when it comes to writing a dictionary and the Deaf Community said that’s not what this is about. 

They said ‘He thinks we’re stupid, he’s not Deaf, he can speak.’ The Association begged me to try one more time. We were sitting in a circle, the guy from Argentina was there and I asked ‘Why don’t you trust him?’ and they said ‘He’s not Deaf, he doesn’t understand us’. Finally, the guy from Argentina blew up saying ‘I don’t get it. I’m Deaf, my parents are Deaf, my brothers and sisters are Deaf, I went to a Deaf school, I am president of a Deaf Association, I’m involved in the dictionary, why can’t you accept me?’ And the vice president of the Nicaraguan Deaf Association said ‘Exactly, you’re not Deaf. You grew up with the same language as your parents, your parents accepted you, you were kept in your family, you never felt any kind of alienation, you had your language from day one, you are not Deaf.'”

Judy and James started their project in the capital Managua, which had 400 deaf children. León, the second biggest city, had 120. Ten years later, they had moved their project into the provinces. Judy said:

“James first went out in 1990. He went out again in 1994 with a deaf man named Gene Myrus from Gallaudet. They went from little town to little town, looking to see who was deaf and what was happening because the Contra war had ended, it was easier to travel and he had discovered one deaf woman in 1990. He discovered about 17 families around the Bluefields area and we looked at those kids, they were isolated. Some had got through classes by copying from the board but there was no signing. We ended up bringing back cases to Managua. The Deaf community of Managua pulled together funds and donations and flew out to Bluefields. We gave them two interpreters and they did a language intervention and we ended up with a school in Bluefields. 

We also expanded to Corn island where there were 10 deaf kids, several of those came over to Bluefields and another one of the researchers and I went out to Corn island to look at the kids that were there and their families. We went back nine generations and saw there was an increase in deafness genetically through the generations. By the ninth generation we had linked it back to the Cayman Islands.”

James explained that their project wasn’t just about spreading Sign, it was also about training deaf teachers:

“The focus of one of our projects was to identify deaf students who would, in time, become the teachers of the next generation…Yuri is one of the students from Bluefields, we were able to use deaf people as language role models in sign language emergence clinics which evolved into full-time schools. Some of them were able to get teaching certification, they basically get a piece of paper saying they can do what they’ve been doing all along. Once they had that, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education was happy to employ them. There are deaf teachers all around the country, not a lot, but they make a big difference.”

He described how the schools evolved:

“The concept of a sign language clinic was established in 1995. And what it was, very simply, was a room that a government agency had given to us and I was there with a number of other linguists from Nicaragua’s sign language project. We established the Nicaraguan Deaf Association, headquartered in Managua…They had identified possibly 45 deaf people living in Bluefields and Corn island and they were all in this room with ages ranging from 4 to 38. What every student had in common was that they had no language background. Neither I nor they had any sign language background. 

Two young people who were acting as sign language role models came from schools in Managua. They were all in that room together, I was basically an administrator. We spent eight weeks there and by the end we had the beginnings of a sign language programme and a sign language community in Bluefields…It was our philosophy that in any class there should be either a deaf teacher or a deaf teacher alongside a hearing teacher so that the hearing teacher would presumably have more command of the substance of whatever the class topic was, but the deaf person would have the language…From the child’s point of view, the person in authority is Deaf.”

James explained how they spread Nicaraguan Sign in the most isolated areas:

“In 2009 on the island of Ometepe, about three hours from Managua, you had no sign language at all. Deaf people were scattered, the idea was to bring them together. We took people we had used in Bluefields including Daphne, Claudia and Yuri. We started a circuit school. We identified seven communities in Ometepe, each with a few deaf people, we had a host family in each community. They would have a one week class on their lawn for deaf people, a little sign language clinic if you will, in which the teachers were all deaf people with experience teaching in Bluefields or Condega. Each week we moved to a different community and we did the circuit twice before packing up then returning a year later to do it again. We did that for three years…They’re doing really well. The children I had met 12 years ago are now adults, they’re signing fluently.”

Finally, James described how Claudia, a teacher they had trained, would demonstrate to the wider community:

“Claudia is to this day the primary sign language role model in Condega. She would take all the deaf children and march through the community. The reason she would do that is because in her view, her disability wasn’t deafness, it was invisibility, the wider community didn’t know they were there.”

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.