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


Recently, I learned that signed languages don't necessarily have anything to do with the language spoken by the hearing people who live in the same country. American Sign Language isn't just English done with your hands. In fact, it's a completely different language from British Sign Language—a deaf American and a deaf Briton wouldn't be able to converse any better than an English speaker could with someone who speaks Japanese.

Sign languages tend to spontaneously emerge when the deaf people of a country or region first start coming together to form a community, usually based around a school. It's happening right now in Nicaragua, where special education schools opened in the 1970s. Over the past 30 years, Nicaraguan Sign Language has evolved from simple gestures between friends, to a full and complete language. That recent evolution makes Nicaraguan Sign Language the enticing blue bug zapper to linguists' and cognitive scientists' curious moths. Case in point: The study of the way language and learning interact. The structure and composition of the language you speak has a big impact on how you think and perceive the world.

In the first version [of Nicaraguan Sign Language] developed in the 1970s, the children hadn't settled on a consistent way of indicating left and right, and the locations of objects in their conversations are fairly ambiguous. The second group of children to expand NSL in the 1980s had more specific conventions for position.

Pyers compared the abilities of people from both groups, now fully grown adults, in two spatial tests. First, she led them into a small room with a single red wall. She hid a token in one corner of the room, blindfolded the children and spun them around until they lost their bearings. When she removed the blindfold, the children had to say where the token was. The second test, like the first, involved hiding a token in the corner of a room, but this time the room was a tabletop model that was rotated while the children were blindfolded.

In both tests, the second group of adults (who learned the more advanced form of NSL) outperformed the first group. Even though their memories and ability to understand the tasks were just as good, the expanded vocabulary of geographical gestures that they learned as children also gave them better spatial abilities well into adulthood.

Not Exactly Rocket Science: New Nicaraguan Sign Language Shows How Language Affects Thought

Image courtesy Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar, via CC.


  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. “WOW! I really love the picture”

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

  11. 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? :)

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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