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

d what was once more like gesture into a true language. Their study appears in the 17 September 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

"We're seeing evolution in action, but what's evolving here isn't an organism. It's a language system," Senghas said.

"Languages essentially 'reproduce' when they are passed from one mind to the next -- that is, when they are learned by a new child. That means the moment of learning is potentially a very powerful moment, an opportunity for shaping and restructuring," she said.

But is it powerful enough to create a whole new language from raw materials such as gestures? According to Senghas and her colleagues, the Nicaraguan case shows that it is.

Senghas' coauthors are Sotaro Kita of the University of Bristol in Bristol, England and Asl zyrek of Nijmegen University and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands and of Ko University in Istanbul, Turkey.

Before the 1970s, most deaf people in Nicaragua stayed at home and had little contact with each other, according to Senghas. The government expanded opportunities for special education with a new elementary school in Managua in 1977 and a vocational school in 1981.

Approximately 50 deaf students enrolled the first year, and the number grew to over 200 by 1981. No one taught the children to sign, but as soon as they were together they began to develop a system of gestures for communicating with each other, both in and out of school. Today there are approximately 800 deaf signers of NSL, ranging from four to 45 years old.

Each wave of children that enters the community develops NSL further, making it more complex and versatile, and signing with greater speed and fluidity.

"It's an unusual community, sort of upside-down, in the sense that the children lead the way. The children are the most fluent users of the language, not the older adults," S

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

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