Professor of Psychology and Director of the Language Acquisition and Development Research Laboratory Ann Senghas studies the evolution of language. Using the lens of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a unique language that originated in the 1970s, Senghas studies how language shifts from one generation to the next. “It’s the only case that we know of a language that’s been documented while its originators are still alive,” says Senghas.

Each summer, she travels to Nicaragua with a team of researchers, including Barnard students, to document NSL users engaging with one another. In a process she likens to “code-breaking,” her team analyzes the movements and gestures of signers, monitoring changes in the language between generations and recording how language users create ordered systems. Over time, for example, the signs became more complicated and systematized—more regular and less gesture-based. In her observations, children in particular display a special capacity to learn the language and create, organize, and change it.

Senghas’ research can be applied more broadly to language learning; capturing the nature of a language at its origin; and the interplay among human cognition, social experience, and language creation.

Photos on homepage and in video: Misha Tulek