What the invention of Nicaraguan Sign Language teaches us about the human brain


23 Responses to “What the invention of Nicaraguan Sign Language teaches us about the human brain”

  1. Ubuntourist at Sugar Labs DC says:

    Even the British Manual Alphabet differs from the American Manual Alphabet: The Brits use a two-handed alphabet, in which more of the letters resemble the printed form. The advantage of the Yank’s system is that it can be done one-handed.

  2. kostia says:

    I traveled to the (then) USSR in 1990 with a group from my high school, which was the school that included the district’s deaf students. Some of them happened to be on the trip, so among the chaperones were two of the school’s sign language interpreters.

    A day or two before we left Moscow for (then) Leningrad, two young men approached our interpreters in a park. They understood no English, but they were deaf, and they did understand the ASL conversations they saw in our group. They were amazed at this, and loved having someone to talk to besides each other. We got the feeling they lived a pretty lonely life with very little outside conversation. They spent every minute they could with us, ending with a tearful goodbye when we got on the train. It was probably one of the most moving things I experienced on that trip. Sign language is a beautiful thing for so many reasons.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Not only is American Sign Language != British Sign Language, but ASL != English.

    Reading comprehension is one of the greatest challenges deaf students face (when they have grown up with ASL/signing as their primary language). The reason isn’t that they aren’t “smart enough”, but that reading English (or whatever the printed language is) is essentially learning a second language for them. The consequence is that they have twice the mental work in most classes: 1) the primary subject matter, and 2) translating the foreign language (English) to their native language (ASL).

    The equivalent situation for American hearing students would be if they had grown up speaking English, but all the textbooks in their school were in German.

    Makes your brain hurt to consider, no? :)

  4. kenahoo says:

    I think most theories about how one’s specific language affects one’s cognitive abilities have been fairly convincingly refuted. Just like the old saw about how the Eskimos Have Seventeen (or whatever) Words For Snow; but guess what – so do we regular old non-Eskimos!

    One of the most careful & well-respected proponents of this notion was Al Bloom ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Bloom ), who published a pretty decent study of how linguistic differences between English & Chinese speakers seemed to affect their cognitive abilities. But even this doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny (see e.g. http://www.jstor.org/pss/4168344 ).

    I of course wouldn’t suggest that language has *no* effect on thought, but I expect this study of differences in spatial abilities, like other previous studies on disparities in logical reasoning or Bloom’s counterfactuals or other deep cognitive processing, won’t survive examination over time.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I would love to hear a convincing theory explaining why so many otherwise intelligent people assume that sign languages are the same across the world.

  6. 4649 says:

    Fascinating. This moves me to prune my vocabulary and limit my exposure to talking points.

    (I am assuming that, if the lack of useful words impairs awareness, then the lack of vacuous/fallacious words will improve it. And that I’m not too old for it to do any good.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    That is image really creepy. I’m also not sure how it relates to the article either.

  8. IWood says:


  9. Splather says:

    That’s not right. In fact signers can communicate FAR better with those who use other sign languages, as was taught to me on my recent deaf awareness course. There’s a period of adjustment, but it’s much less (often only a few minutes) than those of us who communicate verbally.

  10. audaxaxon says:

    WOW! I really love the picture, didn’t even read the article. Some equivalent image to that is one which I’ve wanted to see ever since reading Hans Moravec’s description of the Bush Robot.


    but yeah, whew! It definitely packs a punch.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’ve taken ASL, I find it fascinating for various reasons, fun fact though, French Sign Language and American Sign Language has the same origins, and although you can’t converse with a British deaf person, you can with a French deaf person to some extent

  12. LiamG says:

    The fascinating thing about this for me is the way it elegantly confirms the dialectical theories of early Soviet theorists such as Vygotsky and Volosinov on the role of language in the structure of cognition and severely undermines the idealist view that language is merely a vehicle for thought.

  13. kmccarty says:

    When I first heard that deaf signing had nothing whatsoever to do (other than its purpose to communicate) with the usual oral/written languages, and that they have their own forms natural to the visual rather than aural medium, and that the deaf have their own culture too, I also heard the sound of my own brain splitting open. If the deaf have their own languages and cultures, they must have their own literatures too! And then I thought– what about deaf poetry? What would that be like? More visual-kinesthetic than aural-musical, I guess.

    But wait, how can there be poetry without oral language? Because as everyone knows, the experience of poetry is inseparable from an oral performance, even if only by the reader “silently” inside his head. I guess some people actually believe this is an obstacle, but when the idea occurred to me, I was so “well duhh!! *Of course* they have poetry! It just doesn’t work on you the same way.” I guess I’m more willing to re-use a perfectly good term for this than to invent a whole new term for whatever it is that plays the same functional role in the cultural life of human beings.

    Well, what about it? Well, you can read more about this for a start over at ubuweb, where I had my own mind opened up all the way: “Poetics of American Sign Language Poetry” by Professor Bauman of Gallaudet University, http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/bauman_asl.html. And don’t overlook “The Scandal of Speech in Deaf Performance”, also at ubuweb http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/davidson_hearing.html, it’s an eye-opener too.

  14. friendpuppy says:

    “WOW! I really love the picture”

    Remember what your mom told you not to do when you were growing up? That’s what happens.

  15. Anonymous says:

    A bay area linguistic teacher did his dissertation studying NSL and even has a deaf communities linguistic class. As a former student of his it is exciting to see a article on NSL. Most people do not know that languages are still being created, but this gives them an example of how it is possible in this day and age.

  16. Mark Crummett says:

    Oh god, I’ll never be able to unsee that illustration.

  17. andyhavens says:

    That is a deeply bad picture. Please don’t do that if there’s no editorial reason. You just made my brain hurt.

  18. Church says:

    What Splather said. Deaf people with different languages have an easier time communicating than hearing people do (not that it’s a cinch, either.) The specifics (communicating addresses etc.) are about as hard, but more general stuff tends to translate better.

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