Regulating Language

3 April 2019

(Content Warning: ableism)

Sign language is something that few people even experience in their daily lives, let alone learn. Even as a linguistics student, I’ve found that my education has focused exclusively on speech, with casual references made here and there on the applicability of theory used for spoken languages to sign language; even then, it’s mostly an afterthought.

If this is the case even within undergraduate linguistics courses, you can imagine that a broader societal understanding of sign language is, uh, non-existent. Many think that sign language is just a spoken language translated with gestures replacing words or letters. In reality they have all kinds of different features, many of them not analogous to anything we see in spoken language, but these sorts of misunderstandings are Atticus Finch moments compared to some of the treatment faced by Deaf communities worldwide.

Take the example of Deaf education. Despite the existence of many diverse sign languages, Deaf schools have often only featured attempts to teach students to speak and lip-read a language, rather than teach in sign languages. This approach, known as Oralism, was rooted in the eugenics movement and was rarely successful. However, even a broken clock is right twice a day; Oralism’s use in a Nicaraguan Deaf school led to a development that has revolutionised our understanding of language and how it works.

First, a quick history lesson: for much of the 20th century, Nicaragua, a small nation in Central America, was ruled by the Somoza family and their cronies—backed by the U.S. Government—resulting in a series of authoritarian, socially conservative regimes. The Somoza cared little for their people; by the time Anastacio Somoza Debayle’s government was overthrown by the leftist Sandanistas in 1979, only one in five Nicaraguans could read. In an attempt at education reform (one that actually proved pretty successful), the newly formed government embarked on a ‘literacy crusade’—their words, or their Spanish equivalent I guess—which included massively increased funding for Deaf schools.

This brings us to the Melania Morales School, in Nicaragua’s capital, whose attendees were ostensibly there to learn Spanish. But it wasn’t what they learned in class that was important. It was what they were doing in the playground.

Most at the Melania Morales School were Deaf children meeting other Deaf children for the first time in their lives. Any experience they’d had with signing was limited to simple gestures with family and friends. Despite this, the students showed amazing aptitude to communicate with each other by signing; first as basic gestures, but with increasing complexity as more students came and went. The development of the language was a bit like how a pidgin becomes a creole—its grammar regularised over time, and irregularities and idiosyncratic features were worn down in favour of a shared language. The formation of grammar occurred so quickly that even linguists were shocked.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language (abbreviated to ISN). Here, for the first time, is clear evidence that children are pretty much born with the ability to create and rapidly learn grammar. It wasn’t as if ISN wasn’t the first spontaneously created sign language, but in the past, other local sign languages were usually displaced once educators who knew a signed lingua franca, usually American Sign language, came into the area. Linguists studying ISN were incredibly careful not to introduce such a threat, so as to allow ISN to grow organically. Some have criticised this decision, saying it would stunt the prospects of those at the school, that it amounted to human experimentation—but at the same time, can the linguistic imperialism of forcing American Sign Language on these students over their own unique language really be justified?

I’ve barely touched on this topic. It is brimming with implications for how we can understand language. ISN is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing the birth and infancy of a language, short of putting a bunch of toddlers in a room for a few years and trying to get them to make up a language. In many ways, it’s inspired more questions than answers—we’re still no closer to finding a language-learning centre in our brains that would explain how ISL could be created so spontaneously. But if nothing else, it shows that government regulation of language is a double-edged sword.

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