What linguists have learned from one of the world’s newest languages

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: My name is Yuri Shepard-Kegl.

Patrick Cox: Yuri is 29. She’s deaf. She’s signing these words to her adoptive mother Judy, who’s interpreting for her.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: My name sign is Yuri that I just signed, which is a Y down the side of my face. Right now I’m at home, in my home in Maine. I’ve lived here 13 years. I’ll soon have my anniversary of when I came to the United States.

Patrick Cox: Yuri emigrated to the US from central America.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: I’m from Nicaragua.

Patrick Cox: She was born without hearing, and she didn’t communicate much at all for the first few years of her life — until she went to a school for the deaf.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: When I was 4 years old, I entered the school. They came — they took me to the school and that’s where I started to learn Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them.

One upon a time, there were no languages. Then at some point in human development, we began speaking to each other, eventually in ways that followed grammatical patterns. Not sure when irregular verbs made their debut.

There’s some linguistic archaeology being done about this that offers clues about how all this happened. But the details are elusive. We just don’t know how we started to use language.

Today though, we know a little more, thanks to a language that only came into being recently: Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Patrick Cox: Where were you in 1979? Maybe not on this earth.

A lot of stuff happened that year. Charlie’s Angels, for one thing.

Male voiceover: “Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy.”

Newscaster: “Iranian students continue to hold more than 50 hostages at the American embassy in Tehran this morning:

Margaret Thatcher: “Her majesty the Queen has asked me to form a new administration and I have accepted”

Newscaster: “It was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which is located on an island in the Susquehanna River.”

Patrick Cox: There was all that. And this, a left-wing insurrection in central America.

Newscaster: “Victorious Sandinista rebels marched into Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua today.”

Judy Shepard-Kegl: In 1979, there was what they refer to as the triumph of the revolution. The Sandinista government took over.

Patrick Cox: This is Judy Shepard-Kegl, the woman who was interpreting for her daughter at the top of the episode. She teachers linguistics at the University of Southern Maine. She was a young researcher back in 1979. Judy spoke with Carol Zall about this time in her life. Here’s Carol.

Carol Zall: It was in the years after ’79 that Judy first got involved with Nicaragua. The new Sandinista government had big plans for their country.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: They were involved in all kinds of promotions to get a fourth grade education for everyone, get people literacy, improve health care. You know, the amount of tuberculosis was high, the literacy rate was horrendous.

Carol Zall: As part of this drive for literacy, the government started providing special education for Deaf kids in public schools.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: Deaf people were hidden in the homes, I mean Deaf people weren’t even going to the churches, they weren’t anywhere where they were really becoming part of the community. There was a real stigma.

Carol Zall: But now, for the first time, hundreds of Deaf children were brought together in a few schools in the capital city, Managua. Judy Shepard-Kegl had been a graduate student at MIT. Some of the professors there were in a group called Linguists for Nicaragua. They were making trips to Nicaragua to teach.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And while they were in Managua, they were approached by the Ministry of Education, who asked them if they knew anyone, if there was anyone in their group that was specialized in deafness. So those people came back to me and said, are you interested in going down there?

Carol Zall: And Judy was.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: I got a plane ticket. I flew down. I stayed in a family house that Linguists for Nicaragua had set up.

Carol Zall: And the first place Judy went was a vocational school.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: When I walked in, I said, I’m a linguist, I study, you know, sign language, what do you want from me? And they pointed to a bunch of kids milling around on a little basketball court in front of us and said, we want to understand what they’re talking about.

Carol Zall: Now these kids had never been taught sign language. Ever. There just wasn’t any sign language in Nicaragua. At school, they were being taught lip-reading and Spanish, and were told not to use gestures. But somehow, these children had found a way to connect anyway, because outside of the classroom — on the playground, on the school bus — they’d been gesturing with each other, using the signs they’d used at home with their families. Judy’s role at the vocational school was to observe the students and try to decipher how they were communicating with each other.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: So I was allowed to just kind of go into these classes. So I went into the beauty shop class with my little notebook, and I just watched what they were doing, and I could be there all day.

Carol Zall: And the kids she was watching got curious about her, and they came over to see what Judy was doing. They realized that she was studying them, studying their signs.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And they went into a little huddle, and one of them, Mabel, comes up, and they decided that if I was learning these signs they would test me.

Carol Zall: So she showed Judy a sign.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And I was like, OK, this is my big test. So I had to figure this out, and I thought, well, they’re all 12, 13, 14. I saw a few of them doing something that I thought was a sign for menstruation. And so I guessed, you know, and I described in gesture a sanitary napkin. Well, I got it right. Right. That was my ticket. That was it.

Carol Zall: From then on, the kids taught her anything she wanted to know.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: They taught me how to ride the bus, they taught me where to find food, you know, I had passed whatever their test was and that was it. From then on, I could just, you know, collect as much as I wanted and they were a part of that process.

Carol Zall: So Judy started learning their signs. But although she was starting to communicate with them, it seemed to her that they didn’t have a full-fledged language. What they had, she thought, was a system of gestures.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: They were communicating, there was a rich communication. It was a kind of elaborated contact gesturing that was happening.

Carol Zall: “Contact gesturing.” A series of gestures that communicated a thought or idea, but didn’t really follow grammatical rules, like a language would.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: Let me give you one example: so the gesturers would sign some sort of an action like ‘talk’, and they’d move their hand back and forth at their mouth. And then they might point to one person and point to another person, and that meant, he told her, he talked to her.

Carol Zall: That looks totally different from a full-fledged sign language.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: When you see a language, it’s rule-governed. It’s got internal consistency. It’s following a human set of constraints on how grammars look. That thing did not yet exist when those first kids came into the schools.

Carol Zall: So Judy continued to study the kids at the vocational school, but after a couple of weeks, she went to visit some younger kids at an elementary school.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: That’s when I saw something very different.

Carol Zall: The younger children were communicating much more fluently than the older kids. Which is not what you might expect. Usually we think the older a child is, the better their language skills. But at this elementary school, the very youngest kids were actually the most fluent.

Patrick Cox: So Carol, that almost sounds like the fluency is going backwards, getting younger. How can that be?

Carol Zall: Well, it might sound counterintuitive, but actually, this is something that can happen when languages come into being. And Judy was a linguist, and she knew that.

Patrick Cox: So she was looking out for things that she’d seen in other languages?

Carol Zall: Yeah, it was something like that. She knew about things like modern Hebrew. That’s a language that was revived. The first generation to revive Hebrew learned the language as adults. Then they spoke it to their children, These children were raised with Hebrew as their first language. This new generation of children actually spoke the language better than their parents did, because they were now native speakers. And at this stage in the development of a new language –

Judy Shepard-Kegl: The stage where the children are really leading the pack, the younger the person, the more fluent the language.

Carol Zall: And that’s what Judy was seeing at the elementary school.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: And that made me realize, wait a minute, what am I looking at here?

Carol Zall: Judy concluded that she was looking at the emergence of a brand new language. And over time, it became clear to her that these younger children were not just more fluent: they were operating on a whole different level.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: When you watched these guys signing, your brain immediately went into, Oh, that’s happening linguistically, Oh, that’s what’s going on with the order. Oh, they’re using this, Oh, they’re using that, Oh the facial expressions, the regularity and the consistency for someone who already had looked at a sign language and was looking at sign language grammar, it just became very clear. It was like somebody just wiped away the fog, and you could see the grammar right there in front of you.

Patrick Cox: So Carol, how did these younger kids actually make that jump from the rudimentary gesturing, to what Judy was seeing right there, a language with a full grammar?

Carol Zall: Probably not every linguist would agree on exactly how it happened. But here’s what Judy thinks: the younger kids were young enough that they were in the so-called ‘critical period’, meaning their brains were very receptive to language. And they had spent lots of time with the older kids, and been exposed to those gestures and signs that those kids had been using. And Judy thinks that that was the trigger for creating the new language.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: That was the stimulus, that was the input to the younger kids. The kids who really benefited from that input were four, five, six.

Carol Zall: Those children had no way of knowing that those gestures and signs they were seeing weren’t really a language.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: So they learned it. It wasn’t a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. That’s the kind of formula for this.

Carol Zall: This is key to Judy’s understanding of what happened. She believes that as long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language.

Judy Shepard-Kegl: The young kids see people trying to communicate, and repeating, and they see gestures, and they look at this, and their brains go, Boom, I’m going to focus on this. We are predestined to do that.

Patrick Cox: Predestined to learn the language. If that’s the case, how quickly can we humans turn basic communication into a fully-formed language? How long does it take to go from zero to 6o? And what else have people learned after decades of watching this language emerge?

Carol Zall: Well, a lot has been learned by looking at the different ways that Nicaraguan Sign Language has been changing over time. Because they had new kids coming to the elementary school every year. So they were able to compare different generations of signers. So I talked to one researcher named Molly Flaherty.

Molly Flaherty: I’m a visiting assistant professor of developmental psychology at Swarthmore College.

Carol Zall: And the thing that Molly has been studying is how the size of the language has been changing over time.

Patrick Cox: You mean, the actual size of the signs in space?

Molly Flaherty: Yeah, like how large are the physical signs?

Carol Zall: So she’ll get people of different ages to describe the same event to her, to see the differences in how they sign. They do this by using motion tracking technology to follow the position of people’s wrists in space.

Molly Flaherty: So what we see in Nicaragua is that older signers, they sign larger than do younger signers. So that means like when they’re articulating the same sign, their hands actually cover more space. They cross more space. They move further through this space in front of their bodies than do younger signers when they’re signing that very same sign.

Carol Zall: Molly thinks the change has to do with the older signers, the ones from the earlier generations, wanting to make sure they were understood.

Molly Flaherty: So you might imagine that the pressure to be understood might keep you big, might keep you making more, you know, larger signs that were easier to see or easier to see the movement of in some kind of way, versus a smaller sign might be easier to miss, so it might be harder for somebody who doesn’t share your language to be able to understand.

Carol Zall: But younger signers today don’t have that same pressure: they do expect to be understood.

Molly Flaherty: Because they share a language the way that the vast majority of us here on earth share a language with other people.

Carol Zall: And that means that other pressures can start to influence the language.

Molly Flaherty: So maybe then you can start seeing pressures for efficiency and production show up so that they can start making the signs smaller, start making them faster, because they no longer have this counter-pressure to keep them as large and understandable and big and clear as possible.

Patrick Cox: So are the signers in Nicaragua themselves aware that the language has been changing?

Carol Zall: Oh yes. And Molly says that the older signers — at least some of them — think the younger signers are getting it all wrong.

Molly Flaherty: Within the Nicaraguan sign community, you still, you know, will interact with people who will talk about how the kids are being so messy, and so sloppy, in their signing. And, they’re clearly ruining the language, in this way or that way, just like you find everywhere else on Earth.

Patrick Cox: That’s hilarious. It really seems to be a universal thing, that older people complain about the ways younger people speak. So what about other changes in the language that people are looking at?

Carol Zall: They look at how vocabulary has been changing between generations. There was this one study that looked at how good people were at expressing concepts related to time. Like talking about the order of a series of events, or using ideas like “next” or “continue.”

Patrick Cox: “Next” or “continue.” Why specifically those terms?

Carol Zall: Linguists are divided over how long these time concepts might have taken to evolve in human language. Because they’re complicated, they’re kind of abstract, so they might have taken a longer time to develop. In this particular study, they did find a big difference between generations: the earlier signers were not as good with these time concepts as the later signers. Which shows that they do take a while to develop. But, it was only a few generations — not hundreds of generations, like some people might have thought. This is something that I talked about with Molly too, the speed of the language.

Molly Flaherty: It’s not like it takes a hundred years to get a language off the ground, and that’s really good to know. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will.

Carol Zall: So maybe that’s how quickly language emerged originally, too. Not over millennia, but decades.

Patrick Cox: Right, you can see how the research into Nicaraguan Sign Language is casting doubt on a whole bunch of orthodox ideas.

Carol Zall: Exactly. And let’s stay with vocabulary. Molly worked on an experiment that involved numbers and counting. She was trying to figure out how it affected people if you didn’t have ‘one-two-three-four-five’ in your vocabulary. So here’s what she did.

Molly Flaherty: I would knock on somebody’s shoulder five times and then I would ask them to knock back on my shoulder the same number of times.

Carol Zall: She wanted to see whether people who didn’t have any language for numbers could do this.

Molly Flaherty: For people who know language for a number, who count things all the time, this is a pretty trivial task. I knock on your arm, you count in your head, you knock back on my arm, counting again in your head.

Carol Zall: But if you had never learned language for numbers, could you do it? Some older Nicaraguan signers who only learned the language as adults have never learned numbers. They never learned to count. Could they reproduce the right number of knocks?

Molly Flaherty: People don’t seem to be able to match five knocks to five knocks exactly, or don’t seem to be able to produce five knocks themselves to match my five knocks, unless they also have language to talk about five.

Patrick Cox: Wow, that’s crazy.

Carol Zall: I know! Like, if you don’t have the idea of 1–2–3–4–5, do you actually feel five taps on your arm? How do you experience that?

Patrick Cox: Right! Doesn’t that gets right to the question of how language influences how we think?

Carol Zall: You know, I always wonder about that. But you can also turn it around and ask how our brains influence language. I think that’s why so many of the studies on NSL compare different generations of signers: because linguists are really interested in the influence of children’s brains on language. When children are learning a language, they’re not just passively absorbing words.

Molly Flaherty: They’re actually really active interpreters of the language that they’re learning. They’re analyzing it and they are finding structure there, even sometimes when you didn’t intend to put it there.

Carol Zall: Children are always trying to make sense of language.

Molly Flaherty: They’re doing this very complicated pattern-finding thing.

Carol Zall: They look for patterns, and when they find them, they favor the ones that occur most frequently. And in this way, over time, children drive the way a language develops.

Molly Flaherty: Kids are good at learning certain things, and since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially. Because anything a child can’t learn, can’t stay in a language, or at least not for very long.

Carol Zall: That means that children have an outsized influence on language. All languages.

Molly Flaherty: To think about the fact that this integral product that we all use every day, all day, may really be shaped by the youngest minds, and by the youngest people in our world, is, I don’t know, I like that idea, that we’re all using this creation of children all the time, and we don’t necessarily realize it.

Carol Zall: And that, of course, is what Nicaraguan Sign Language is: the creation of children.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: First time I saw a computer, I mean, I had never seen one before. But it was pretty awkward. I would just hunt and peck and do what I could.

Patrick Cox: This is Yuri Shepard-Kegl again, with her mom Judy interpreting. From her home in Maine, Yuri stays in touch with her old friends in Nicaragua. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl: We use things like Facebook and, you know, we would just share pictures back and forth with my friends in Nicaragua. I didn’t want to lose touch. But they have computers. I have computers now and we just keep in touch. I found their faces on Facebook, we made contact, and now we chat over the phone all the time. Our goal is to keep communicating and keep the language preserved.

Patrick Cox: Yuri Shepard-Kegl. Her mom Judy says that now that linguists know what to look out for, they’re finding other possible new languages among signers in many other parts of the world. Judy, by the way, has become life-long friends with Mabel, the Nicaraguan signer who first taught her and then tested her signing skills.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Carol Zall. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.

Thanks to: Jennie Pyers, Deborah Chen Pichler, James Shepard-Kegl, Galen Koch, Kimberly Haas, Jeremy Helton, and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod