home | people | fieldwork | teaching | contact us  

Where did Nicaraguan Sign Language come from?
Ann Senghas

Thirty years ago, Nicaragua had no sign language.  Deaf people struggled to communicate with their families, and with each other.  Today, Nicaragua has a rich, developed sign language, learned easily by young deaf children when they meet other deaf people who sign.  Where did this language come from?

Nicaraguan Sign Language Nicaraguan Sign Language was not imported from some other country.  It was not invented by teachers or parents, or even deaf adults.  The language arose naturally, among a generation of young Nicaraguans who needed to communicate.  Nicaraguan Sign Language came from the same place that all languages came from – human minds, trying to connect with other human minds. 

When did Nicaraguan Sign Language arise?
Before the 1970s, deaf people had no opportunities to gather in large numbers.  Some deaf children met each other in small schools and clinics in Managua, but there were never very many of them together at one time, and they didn’t stay together as a group for many years in a row.  There were also few opportunities for contact between deaf adults and children, so even if one generation developed some effective communication strategies, they wouldn’t pass them on to the next generation.  Each group of children had to start over from the beginning.  They would develop some home signs and some common gestures, but could not move beyond that. 

When you meet deaf people who were young children 30 years ago, they will tell you that communication was very hard back then, before there was a sign language.  Even today, most deaf adults of that and older generations struggle to communicate in any language, spoken or signed.

Changes in special education in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to dramatic changes in the social lives of deaf people.  A new, larger school for special education opened in the neighborhood of San Judas, bringing more deaf children together than ever before, and at a younger age.  A vocational center opened soon afterwards in Villa Libertad, keeping many of these children in contact into adolescence.  Deaf adolescents began to socialize outside of school hours, visiting each others’ homes.  By the end of the decade, they also had an association for deaf adults with its own house where they could meet up.

The first generation of deaf youths to grow up amidst these changes was a generation of pioneers.  At first, communication was as difficult for them as it had been for the previous generations.  But as they interacted, they began to change the gestures and home signs they were using.  Their vocabulary grew quickly over those first few years, just like when a little child learns to talk.  Their signs became more systematized, more regular, and less gestural.  The structure of signed sentences became much more complicated. By the time this generation became adults, at the end of the 1980s, their signs were rapid and fluent.  The language had grown to resemble other languages around the world.  It could now express ideas as complex as any other language. 

This is how a new language, Nicaraguan Sign Language, was born in that first decade.  But what happened in the next decade was just as important for the language to survive and grow.  The first generation of pioneers, now adults, passed their language down to a new generation of children. 

Children who entered the school for special education in the 1990s found a very different linguistic world than the one the first generation had encountered in the 1980s.  It was a world rich with signing that had been developing for over 10 years.  All the children at the school learned from the children before them, and each new entering class watched, listened with their eyes, and learned to sign within a few short years. 

For this new generation, early communication was no struggle at all.  They learned the sign language easily and naturally. Many of them don’t even realize they were the first to learn the language as children.  They have taken it up enthusiastically, and even continued to develop it further.  New words and phrases – even new ways of putting signs together – enter the language every day as it is used on buses, in the school yard, in the association, and in deaf people’s homes.

How did it happen?
Since they couldn’t hear Spanish, and couldn’t easily learn a language from somewhere else, the first generation of Nicaraguan Sign Language signers had to be very resourceful.  They took as their building blocks the everyday gestures they saw people using around them, and reorganized them.  That’s why some Nicaraguan Sign Language signs look like gestures you have seen before.  However, once they became part of the sign language, these gestures took on a new life, and were joined by thousands of other signs that are not so easy to recognize.

Since 1989, I have been working with deaf children and adults from Managua who learned Nicaraguan Sign Language when they were very young.  They have been helping me figure out how gestures were reorganized into a complex language.  I have learned that young children played a very important role in this reorganization.  The way children learn language, the way they organize information in their minds, gave Nicaraguan Sign Language its structure, its grammar.  For this reason, Nicaraguan Sign Language is a window into how natural human grammars are made. 

If you have learned Nicaraguan Sign Language, you have probably noticed that its structure is very different from Spanish.  Sentences have different words, and they are put together in a different order.  That’s because the structure didn’t come from Spanish.  In fact, most of the deaf children and adolescents, as they created Nicaraguan Sign Language, didn’t have enough access to Spanish to learn it fluently. They couldn’t hear it, and they had difficulty understanding their parents and teachers. 

Nicaraguan Sign Language is also quite different from sign languages from other countries, like Swedish Sign Language or American Sign Language or even Costa Rican Sign Language.  Some signs in Nicaraguan Sign Language come from these other languages, just as some words in Spanish come from English and vice versa.  It is easy for languages with occasional contact to share words.  But, as anyone who has learned a foreign language knows, it takes a lot of study and practice with native speakers to learn the grammar of a language from somewhere far away.  So the structure of this new language didn’t come from far away; it came from the minds of the children and adolescents who were right here, in Nicaragua.

Why did Nicaraguan Sign Language arise when it did?
The natural learning abilities that shaped Nicaraguan Sign Language have been around for as long as there have been children in Nicaragua.  So why did the language arise only recently?  The social situation must have played an important role.  Remember, some deaf people had been together before the 1970s, but no sign language emerged back then.  What were the changes in the early 1980s that made the difference?  This question is hard to answer, as many things were changing at the same time.  Those that I think matter most include:

• more deaf people were socializing together than ever before (there were never more than 25 previously, and now there were 200 in one school)
• they were meeting at a younger age (some as young as 4 and 5 years of age)
• young deaf children had frequent contact with deaf adolescents for the first time
• deaf people were staying in contact for a longer time, from childhood to adulthood

The first generation to encounter all of these conditions was the generation that gave birth to Nicaraguan Sign Language. Today, by passing their language on to new generations of children, they ensure that future Nicaraguans will not have to start from scratch.  From now on, deaf children in Nicaragua will have a fully-accessible, natural language, waiting to be learned.