New sign language suggests children create language's fundamentals through learning

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At a school in Managua, Nicaragua, deaf children are speaking a new language entirely their own, which nonetheless has remarkable similarities to the world's other languages. Researchers studying these similarities suggest this week in Science that, in fact, children give language its most fundamental, universal features just by the way they learn it.

As varied as they may sound to the untrained ear, all languages share certain basic traits that have been the subject of debate for decades.

While some researchers have argued that these traits come hard-wired in the human brain, others have argued that they developed gradually over generations through experimentation and improvement. In contrast, the new study suggests that the source of these similarities is the way languages are learned.

Ann Senghas of Barnard College of Columbia University and her colleagues propose that even if children aren't born with a "blueprint" for language (as Noam Chomsky, for example, has argued), their brains do use a specific approach to learning that can turn a simple communication system into a true language in a surprisingly short period of time.

The researchers compared the ways that deaf children and adults used Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) to tell a story. The signers had learned the language at different stages of its brief history.

While the oldest signers described actions using pantomime-like gestures, the younger generations carved the gestures into simpler, basic words, following rules fundamental to all languages.

The authors suggest that as subsequent groups of children have learned NSL, they have, all on their own, turne

Contact: Jessica Lawrence-Hurt
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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