Magazine article Science News

Deaf Kids Establish Own Sign Language

Magazine article Science News

Deaf Kids Establish Own Sign Language

Article excerpt

Children learn their native language with remarkable ease. This feat has inspired a long-running scientific debate about whether youngsters innately grasp underlying linguistic rules, or grammar, without having to learn them.

In a finding sure to fuel this argument, two psychologists report that successive groups of deaf kids attending a pair of Nicaraguan schools invented their own full-fledged sign language in less than 2 decades.

"Sequential [groups] of interacting children aged 10 and younger collectively possess the capacity not only to learn, but also to create language," the researchers conclude in the July PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE.

Ann Senghas of Barnard College in New York City and Marie Coppola of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) studied videotaped communications of 24 deaf individuals, ages 7 to 32, who had used what is now formally called Nicaraguan Sign Language for at least 4 years.

Participants now attend, or used to attend, either of two schools for the deaf in Managua. The first school opened in 1977, and the second in 1980. The students all had hearing parents, and none knew any signing deaf adults. Teachers provided instruction only in lip-reading and in speaking Spanish, with little success. Apparently in response, the students independently developed the hand signing that evolved into Nicaraguan Sign Language.

The grammatical seeds of the deaf children's home-grown language came from hand motions they already practiced, such as informal gestures used at home and at school, Senghas and Coppola assert. …

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