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A Language Grows Up

From Barnard Magazine, Winter 2014

Ann Senghas arrived in Nicaragua for the first time in January 1990. She had about $5,000 in the bank, which was meant to last a year. She didn’t speak Spanish. Daniel Ortega was about to be up for reelection, and the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua had been surrounded. “My parents were kind of worried,” Senghas says.

She was there to study the newly emergent Nicaraguan Sign Language, which began developing in the late 1970s, making it the first language whose originators are still alive. Once in Nicaragua, she mostly spent time with the young deaf community. In certain ways, she fit in: she was in her mid-20s, and they ranged from adolescents to around the same age as she was. She was not, however, fluent in signing. More than that, Senghas looked different, to put it mildly, from her new compatriots. “White girl with a buzz cut and a long rat-tail braid and parachute pants and fluorescent shoelaces,” she says. “So they were like, ‘we better take care of this girl, or she’s gonna die down here.’ So they just led me all around to show me their hangouts. I went every day to the park where they played basketball, and I just had my video camera with me all the time.”

That year’s research, done under the guidance of Judy Shepard-Kegl (then at Swarthmore, now at the University of Southern Maine), would later become the data for Senghas’s PhD dissertation at MIT. Nearly two decades later, it’s the main focus of her research at Barnard, where she teaches in the psychology department and runs the Language Acquisition and Development Research Laboratory. What she discovered was that each generation of signers was making the language more complex and nuanced. “What really captured me on that trip was this idea that there was a huge difference between the 15- and the 25-year-olds, in their fluency and command of the language, and in the complexity of the language they used,” she says. “I wanted to study what the role of the child learners was on the emergence of this new language. And that’s what I’ve been studying ever since.”

Before the 1970s, there was no sign language in Nicaragua. There were some clinics and schools for the deaf, but none served more than 25 students, and none started the students when they were young. There weren’t opportunities for large numbers of deaf youngsters to come together and have a social community or intergenerational contact. There isn’t a lot of genetic deafness in Nicaragua; it results mostly from maternal rubella, antibiotics, and other environmental causes—so most deaf children in the past didn’t even have linguistic communion with their own parents. That all changed with the creation of special education schools in the late ’70s, starting with a primary school in Managua. The school served 50 kids from 4 to 14 with all kinds of impairments; deaf children had their own classrooms. The education was in Spanish, accompanied by hand spelling, but the students rode the bus to and from school together, and visited each other’s homes. “They suddenly got this autonomy that came with a social community,” Senghas says.

They started to communicate with each other through gestures, and throughout the the 1980s, those gestures transformed into a grammaticized language. Each incoming cohort of students learned and expanded on the previous group’s signing, and in 1983, there was a big jump. “That was when the language really exploded in its richness,” Senghas says. Senghas was first captivated while at Smith by the difference between how children and adults learn language. It’s not just that kids immerse themselves in the process and aren’t self-conscious about it. “Those things are true, but there’s also something biologically different about a young child. Children come into the world ready to learn language,” she says. “It’s not learning the way you learn to tie your shoes or the way you learn math. It’s more like growing something—it’s more like how our bodies develop and how our motor skills develop.”

Nicaraguan Sign Language, of course, is an extreme case, because the children were inventing it as they were learning it. But that makes it a richer subject for linguistic study. All dialects drift over time—American English in the ’20s and ’30s is different from American English today—but “you get the same thing in Nicaragua just from one decade to the next,” Senghas explains. “When you go spend a day with 4-year-olds and then you go spend the next day with 20-year-olds, it’s like you’re going forward and back in a time machine. The kind of change that happens in 10 years in Nicaraguan Sign Language is like 200 years in terms of how aspects of a mature language change, and the vocabulary is growing very quickly too.”

But it’s not just the grammar and the vocabulary that have evolved rapidly. In her years of research—Senghas travels to Nicaragua most summers, in the middle of their academic year, bringing Barnard students with her—she has found that later cohorts sign with smaller, faster movements. Previous cohorts’ movements are slower and bigger, up through the first, pioneer cohort, for whom the conversation is “a little bit more effortful,” she says. “Later cohorts don’t have to think about, like, ‘Did you understand me?’ It’s just the way anyone would have a conversation. They talk to each other.”

In a 1998 study, Senghas discovered that while the first cohort had a lot of difficulty describing the configuration of a man and a tree when given various depictions, the second cohort—whose signing had evolved spatial distinctions— had no trouble at all. Moreover, members of the second cohort didn’t realize their signing was different in this way until Senghas got the two cohorts together for the task. Unlike anthropologists, who observe without interfering, “I kind of go in and make them do the stuff that’s hard,” she says.

She has also discovered that the second and third cohorts began to use pointing for pronouns, not just for indicating location, and had developed the mental verbs that allowed for more complex comprehension of other people’s thoughts. This does not diminish the first cohort’s enormous accomplishment. “That first jump is the biggest, from non-language to language,” Senghas says. “Each generation did an incredible thing with what they had, and what these people brought to the next generation allowed the subsequent generation to go even further...”

At Barnard, Senghas taught developmental psychology in the fall and will continue the yearlong Science and Scientists seminar this spring, which features a weekly visitor from a wide range of careers in psychology. The students talk with the scientists about their work, training, and how they came to choose that field. As part of the course, students also attend the Columbia/Barnard psychology colloquium series. It’s a hands- on, practical approach. In fact, Senghas says, “I feel like most of the teaching I do at Barnard is actually at the bench.”

In every class she teaches, she includes a little background on her own work; if students are interested and want to work with her, they will have no problem finding a way into her lab. “There are lots of entry points for students,” she says. “We use the classes as...outreach to those students who would really want to go deeper into the kind of work that we do.”

Senghas’s own history is laced with female mentors, many at women’s colleges, and she is committed to carrying that torch. “It’s an apprenticeship model,” she says. From one generation to the next— perhaps not so unlike the Nicaraguan signers she’s made her life’s work.

—By Jessica Gross
—Illustration by Keith Negley