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How the deaf children at one Nicaraguan school unlocked the mysteries of language

Signs and wonders

The world’s only living natural experiment in the creation of language has happened among the deaf in Nicaragua. As Dan Rosenheck discovered, it has fundamentally changed how linguists think about one of civilisation’s greatest mysteries

The world’s only living natural experiment in the creation of language has happened among the deaf in Nicaragua. As Dan Rosenheck discovered, it has fundamentally changed how linguists think about one of civilisation’s greatest mysteries

Dan Rosenheck | February/March 2018

“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” So Franklin Roosevelt is said to have described Anastasio Somoza, the American-backed dictator of Nicaragua. Somoza’s countrymen had little for which to thank the kleptocratic dynasty he founded. But Hope Portocarrero, the American-born wife of his son, Anastasio Jr, sought refuge in good works from the misery of her marriage to a philandering brute. Among these was a school she set up in 1977 in the capital, Managua, for students with disabilities. It was later named the Melania Morales School, in honour of a teacher killed in an accident.

Political unrest soon put the school’s growth on hold. In 1979 a leftist guerrilla group called the Sandinistas toppled the Somozas’ regime at great human cost: their revolution left around one in 70 Nicaraguans dead and one in five homeless. The Sandinistas proved to be repressive in their own way, but they did launch a campaign to remedy the appalling state of literacy in the country. Thanks to an education policy which Anastasio Jr once reportedly summarised by saying, “I don’t want educated people, I want oxen,” only one in five rural Nicaraguans could read by the end of the Somozas’ rule. The Sandinistas aimed to deliver at least a fourth-grade education to all Nicaraguans, and expanded special education. By 1984, Melania Morales had swelled to around 400 students, the youngest six years old. In addition, the government established a vocational-training institute, where deaf adults could learn trades like carpentry and hairstyling.

Despite the best of intentions, Melania Morales failed its deaf students. Although schools for the deaf in Europe had taught successfully in sign language since the 18th century, the practice all but vanished after 1880, when a conference of educators in Milan banned it on the grounds that the deaf needed to learn spoken language to fulfil their potential. In its place, they instituted a pure “oralist” approach, in which students would be taught to read lips and enunciate sounds even though they could not hear them.

In the United States, the tide started to turn back towards a combination of sign language with oralist techniques in the 1960s. But the Sandinistas were at war with an American-backed, right-wing insurgency, and closed to influence from the northern hegemon. They took their cues from advisers from the Soviet Union and East Germany, where the old dogma remained rigidly enforced.

At Melania Morales in the 1980s, deaf students listened on headphones to amplified sounds of lightning cracks and animal calls to stimulate their hearing. They copied down words their teachers wrote on the blackboard and tried to guess how to pronounce them. But they did this through rote memorisation: when teachers asked them to produce their own sentences in Spanish, they were flummoxed. Within classrooms, the only gestures allowed were a manual alphabet used for spelling, for fear that students allowed to communicate visually would fall off the oralist wagon. Whenever teachers saw their students moving their hands in other ways, they ordered the trouble­makers to place their hands on their desks and keep their eyes fixed on the instructor. Repeat offenders had to write the word “mama” on a piece of paper time after time as punishment.

Even if time in the classroom was largely wasted, however, the school still had a profound impact on its students. Unlike every previous generation of deaf Nicaraguans, pupils at Melania Morales were surrounded by other deaf children of all ages, with roughly 30 new first-graders every year. After graduating from primary school, many of its students went on to the vocational programme. And in the school’s halls and buses, the teachers were powerless to stop the students from communicating however they wanted to.

By the mid-1980s, teachers at Melania Morales began to notice that the children were moving and twisting their hands as soon as they heard the bell that ended class. But many of the young, impressionable teachers recruited for the Sandinistas’ burgeoning special-education plan had never met deaf people before, or heard about how they were taught elsewhere. Even those who knew that sign languages existed abroad dismissed these gestures as mímicas, like the exaggerated movements of a clown.

One day in 1990, Patricia Gutiérrez, a 24-year-old teacher who had never attended university, saw a student named Reyna Cruz making what looked like furious arm movements with a group of girlfriends. Gutiérrez recoiled as she watched Cruz draw her finger across her neck and then down the bottom of her left arm. She presumed that the girl was referring to blood or cutting, and feared she was threatening her classmates. Shortly after, Cruz left school two hours early. The headmaster summoned her, intent on dressing her down.

Speech acts
Javier López talks to friends at ANSNIC

To Gutiérrez’s surprise, when Cruz showed up for her talking-to, she brought along three adults: a deaf man called Javier López and his hearing sisters, María and Sandra. The women claimed to be interpreters, though the headmaster had no idea what they interpreted. But as Cruz began gesturing, the women translated her movements. They explained that the reason Cruz  left early was because she did not understand how long she was expected to stay at school. When Cruz had placed her finger on her neck, it simply meant “I’m telling the truth”; her menacing arm movement  meant “brother”.

Cruz’s gestures did not mean what they seemed to represent visually. Instead, they were signs, whose relationship to their content was just as arbitrary as the links between the sounds of words and their meanings in Spanish. “I was stunned,” Gutiérrez recalls. “We had seen the kids moving their hands outside the classroom, but we didn’t know what they were doing. And here there were older people, including people who could also hear, moving their hands the same way. It was the first time I had seen someone talking and signing at the same time.”

After the meeting, Cruz was allowed to leave without punishment. All of the school’s teachers were floored. Although they had noticed the children’s gestures outside the classroom, they paid them little heed. “I just thought they were making a lot of gestures,” remembers Amy Ortiz, another teacher at the time. “I wondered, ‘Are they just moving their hands to move them, or are they saying something? Could this be a language?’”

Of all humankind’s inventions, none was more consequential than the birth of language. Before its creation, each person’s knowledge was limited to what he or she experienced directly. Afterwards, anybody who learned anything could, armed with language, share it with anybody else. All forms of life communicate somehow, but only Homo sapiens has developed a system of symbols complex and flexible enough to allow it to pool information from individual to individual and generation to generation. Without language there would be no civilisation. We owe our success as a species to this miraculous breakthrough, and it isn’t much of a stretch to consider it the essence of what makes us human.

Yet for all the wondrous powers that language has unleashed, one conundrum it has not enabled humans to solve is its own origin. We know little more about how language began than our pre-linguistic ancestors knew of quantum physics or gene editing. As spoken language leaves no physical trail, there is no evidence available to prove or disprove hypotheses regarding its genesis. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned debate on the subject on the grounds that it was unfit for scientific analysis. Even in the 21st century, the title of one anthology of research on the topic asked whether it was “the hardest problem in science”.

Today, there are nearly as many credible theories of the dawn of language as there are scholars working in the field. They can generally be grouped into two main camps, roughly corresponding to nature and nurture. “Nativists” or “innatists”, primarily associated with Noam Chomsky, believe that the capacity for language is hard-wired into human DNA. They note that human languages, for all their differences, tend to share basic structural characteristics, such as distinguishing between nouns and verbs. It would be extraordinarily improbable for so many different tongues developing independently to display such similarities unless they somehow arise from the architecture of the human brain. Another argument in their favour is the fact that young children invariably master every nuance of their first language, despite being directly exposed to only a tiny fraction of it. Since their knowledge cannot be fully derived from their experiences, say the innatists, the remainder must be present in them from birth.

On the other side stand the “empiricists”. This group sees language as merely one aspect of humans’ broader development of symbolic culture, and no more biologically imprinted than, say, riding a bicycle. Empiricists delight in providing counterexamples to what Chomsky calls “universal grammar”: the Salish languages, for example, spoken by native tribes in Canada and America, meld nouns and verbs into flexible, compound units. Their role in a sentence is determined by the surrounding words. Empiricists also note that children learn language gradually over a period of years, regurgitating fragments as they hear them and making ever-fewer grammatical mistakes as they go along – a far cry from a built-in ability like walking, which is mastered almost in one fell swoop.

As the prohibition into studying the origin of language began to break down, researchers into evolutionary linguistics devised novel methods to hunt for fragmentary answers to the mystery. They have identified genes that seem to be necessary to produce proper language and searched through ancient DNA to test for their presence. They have analysed the number of distinct sounds in languages from different regions, in order to determine where and when they started to diverge. Sub-Saharan Africa a few hundred thousand years ago looks like the best bet.

But such work has provided only shards of insight into this huge question, and linguists had bigger dreams. In 1976 Derek Bickerton, a British academic, proposed an experiment to test his theory that the human genome contains a linguistic “bioprogramme”, one so detailed as to specify the order of subjects, verbs and objects in a sentence. With his creativity enhanced by some fine Hawaiian marijuana, Bickerton proposed taking six families who all speak different languages and sticking them together on an uninhabited island for three years. If his theory were correct, he predicted, the parents would form a “pidgin” out of their original tongues, consisting of a limited, agreed-upon vocabulary, but with no real structure or complexity. The children, however, would produce a “creole” – a complete language with regular grammar, matching the features of his proposed bioprogramme.

Remarkably, the University of Hawaii approved the concept. But America’s National Science Foundation ultimately nixed the project because of concerns over securing informed consent from human subjects. Unless researchers could find a group of children who had somehow grown up without exposure to language before being brought together, this most fundamental of questions about human nature would remain a mystery. Since no mute tribe or people has ever been discovered, this seemed like an impossible fantasy. But unbeknownst to Bickerton, his pipe dream was becoming a reality in Nicaragua.

Ravaged by two decades of war and natural disasters, Nicaragua in the 1980s was about as far as one could get from the idyllic, isolated Pacific atoll that Bickerton had envisioned for his study. But the natural experiment happening there was in some ways superior to his proposal. Bickerton had merely envisioned bringing together families who spoke different languages, in order to see whether their children would create a new one. By expanding Melania Morales and opening the deaf vocational school, the Sandinistas had gone one better: they had taken hundreds of deaf people who had no language at all and exposed them to each other all the way into adulthood.

Melania Morales was not the only fount of linguistic creativity among Nicaragua’s deaf. The other was a yellow, one-storey house, nestled behind a strip mall on one of central Managua’s countless unnamed streets. The “House of the Deaf”, as it is known, was a club for deaf people manned by Javier, María and Sandra López, the people who Reyna Cruz had brought along to the meeting with her headteacher.

Javier López was born in 1961. At home, he communicated through rudimentary signs that his father helped him develop through copious drawings. At school, teachers sought to make him pronounce Spanish sounds by twisting his chin. In early adulthood he earned a living assembling wheelchairs, but dedicated much of his time to a pursuit which required no conversation: athletics. He was a talented sprinter, running the 100 metres in a rapid 11 seconds, just one second slower than the world’s best.

López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out.

Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. “I didn’t identify with those signs,” López says. “I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.” As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.

At each get-together, the group members would go through a list of concepts, often by opening a newspaper and pointing to the photos and cartoons. They would then propose signs for them, and hold a vote on which one would be used. López, whose childhood efforts to communicate with his father turned him into a skilled draughtsman, would then draw each victorious sign on paper to provide a record of their decisions. The group included older students and recent graduates from Melania Mora­les, enabling the children in the school’s playground to incorporate this vocabulary into their fledgling language.

López began soliciting financial support from both members and foreign donors, and was rewarded in 1988 when a well-heeled deaf-advocacy body in Sweden agreed to buy the yellow house. His group called itself ANSNIC (National Association of the Deaf of Nicaragua) and became the de-facto organisation for Nicaragua’s deaf people. Following the López family’s meeting with Reyna Cruz and her principal, the group started to train the faculty at Melania Morales, which abandoned oralism and embraced instruction in what is now known as Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL).

For Nicaragua’s deaf children, it was a life-saver. Jordan Cienfuegos, a skinny 25-year-old who is now doing a degree in teaching the deaf at Nicaragua’s National University, had attended a school for hearing children when he was small. “I didn’t want to stay,” he remembers. “I was alone.” So he stayed at home, doing his best to understand his mother by reading her lips. When he was eight, his mother took him to Melania Morales. “I was scared of people making signs with their hands, but my mother told me they were deaf,” he says. “Finally, I understood that I wasn’t the only deaf kid in the world.”

Look who’s talking
Jefreey Sadrac Mejía chats to Jordan Cienfuegos in NSL at ANSNIC

It isn’t just the language: NSL is a source of community, too. At an ANSNIC party I attended, I saw Jefreey Sadrac Mejía swaying his hips from side to side, as he moonwalked in front of a seated girl who pulled her hair over her mouth to hide her smile. Dancing is his thing: he can’t actually hear the music, but he watches what the other dancers are doing and “I feel it in my body.” He had been struggling at school and his parents, who worked, were too busy to help. So he started going to the yellow house. “I was getting help to do my work, and there were a lot more deaf people here. I was getting a good grade average, and I felt very happy that I found the association.”

The emergence of NSL provided linguists with an unprecedented opportunity to witness the transition from the absence of language to its presence – a similar process to what must have occurred when language itself was born. The comparison is not perfect: deaf Nicaraguans had still grown up with languages spoken around them, unlike their predecessors on the prehistoric savannah. Nonetheless, as Noam Chomsky said in 1996, “This is the closest analogue that nature can provide to the kind of experiment that would be done if we allowed Josef Mengele free rein.”

The first linguist to spot what was going on was Judy Kegl, a former graduate student of Chomsky. In 1986, an American aid group called Linguists for Nicaragua, which sought to bolster the Sandinistas’ literacy campaign, sent her to Managua. Because she had studied American Sign Language (ASL) at MIT, the Nicaraguan education ministry assigned her to work with the deaf.

Her first placement was at the vocational school, where the youngest pupils were around 18. They had all developed different signs to communicate with their families at home – and it showed. In the classroom, they had agreed on a few signs for words that were essential to the trades they were learning. Most were direct depictions of the objects or activities they represented. But this vocabulary was essentially limited to a single gesture for each idea or event – they could not be combined into sentences or paragraphs.

In general, older children exhibit more sophisticated speech. But when Kegl paid a visit to Melania Morales, she found the opposite. First, unlike the vocational students, these children each seemed to have a distinctive sign to refer to themselves. No mere gestural system is known to assign names to its users. Moreover, the teenagers each formed their communally agreed signs slightly differently, and often needed to try numerous movements for their conversational partner to understand their messages. In contrast, the primary-school students exchanged rapid-fire signs without any evidence of misunderstandings.

In an effort to decipher these signs, Kegl brought with her on subsequent trips comic strips depicting Mr Koumal, a Czech cartoon character whose actions require a wide range of verb tenses and arguments to describe. As she showed the children these images and asked them to sign the stories back to her, she began to detect unmistakably grammatical patterns in their signing, ones that closely resembled the structures of foreign sign languages to which they had never been exposed. Perhaps the most striking was the position of their hands when delivering a sign. English and Spanish both rely primarily on word order, alongside the occasional preposition or inflected pronoun, to distinguish between a verb’s subject and object. The vocational group deployed a similar technique, using a rigid, clunky noun-verb-noun-verb sequence (eg, “he gives, she receives”).

At Melania Morales, by contrast, the children had dispensed with this convention and instead began taking advantage of a key communicative feature offered by manual languages that spoken ones lack: the use of space. They assigned one location in front of them to the man, another to the woman, and moved one hand from his spot to hers as it made the sign for the verb “to give”, thus condensing the four signs required by the word-order method into one single swoop. “Nobody recognised they had a language yet,” Kegl says. “But as a linguist, it was strikingly there. I could see grammar, reduplication, facial expressions that had syntactic function. That was the point I said, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on here?’”

When word of the developments at Melania Morales reached linguistics departments around the world, innatists were triumphant. Steven Pinker, a leading nativist, used it as a case study in his book “The Language Instinct”. In subsequent years, a cottage industry has sprung up in researching NSL. The most rigorous recent work does not quite support the most extreme innatist interpretation, which would predict that the language emerged fully formed overnight, like the adult Athena being born from the head of Zeus. However, it does bolster the innatists by implying that children possess some ingrained linguistic faculty that is distinct from humans’ general intelligence.

Ann Senghas, a professor at Barnard College, has been researching NSL since 1989, focusing on how each cohort of learners communicates differently. In one study, she measured “spatial modulation” – whether signers assign consistent and distinct physical locations to each person or thing they are discussing based on their role in a sentence. She found that merely bringing small children together was not sufficient to produce this hallmark of a mature sign language: many members of the first cohort of native speakers, who entered Melania Morales between 1977 and 1983, either relied on word order to link nouns and verbs or varied the locations from sentence to sentence. By the second cohort, however, most signers used the same, regular spatial rule.

Moreover, the second-cohort members who didn’t use it had something striking in common. Many linguists believe that humans learn to speak a language natively only if they are exposed to it early in life, well before puberty. Innatists point to this “critical period” as evidence of a biological instinct, arguing that if children are far better than adults at learning languages but worse at learning almost everything else, this prodigious linguistic ability must stem from the genome. Sure enough, whereas the fluent second-cohort signers had started at Melania Morales by the time they were six years old, those that had not fully mastered its subtleties had begun learning it much later in life.

This pattern – that humans can create a complete language only if they are surrounded from a very young age by older people producing linguistic symbols, such as sounds or gestures – suggests one plausible mechanism for the origin of language. The earliest signers of the precursor to NSL, including López and the older members of ANSNIC, compiled a limited vocabulary, but did not develop their own grammar to connect one word to another. The first cohort of native speakers then began to witness these unconnected strings of gestures when they were around five years old, an age at which humans may have some built-in predisposition to detect and reproduce linguistic regularities – one that presumably emerged from a favourable genetic mutation at some point in prehistory. “When children observed anything that appeared to be a re-occurring pattern, they mistakenly assumed that this pattern constituted a rule,” writes Kegl’s husband James, who founded a school for the deaf on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. These newly invented rules then spread quickly among playmates and classmates. By the time the second cohort entered the school, they were common enough that every sufficiently young member of the subsequent generation would replicate them perfectly. “Children’s minds can find patterns in anything,” Senghas says. “It’s almost like, ‘garbage in, grammar out’.”

Even among innatists, much uncertainty remains about which linguistic skills can be fully acquired only by child learners. Identifying them is arguably the best way to pick out the aspects of language that have some basis in biology as well as culture. Another study by Senghas has homed in closer than ever before on this elusive target. Taking ten members each from three different cohorts of NSL signers, as well as ten Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans, she showed them the same cartoon of a cat swallowing a bowling ball and then rolling down a hill, and recorded them repeating back what they had seen. What the hearing people said was irrelevant; all that mattered were the gestures that accompanied their speech.

Senghas focused on whether her subjects would break down the “manner” of the motion (rolling) and the “path” (downwards) into distinct gestures, or leave them combined as a single re-enactment of the movement in question. For the simple task of communicating what occurred, the joint gesture is more informative: it demonstrates that the rolling and the downwards movement occurred simultaneously, rather than, say, a horizontal roll followed by a drop. However, the separated motions are far more flexible: they can be repurposed to describe any other type of rolling, or any other downward movement.

The results drew a bright line between the most advanced forms of non-linguistic communication, which many other species deploy, and the most rudimentary types of language, which only humans possess. All of the hearing people and most of the first-cohort signers mimed the movement in a single gesture. In contrast, majorities of both the second and third cohorts conveyed the manner and path in separate signs, with many of them repeating the first one – ie, “roll-descend-roll” – to make clear that the motions were simultaneous.

Here was the essence of what makes a language a language. Only linguistic communication, Senghas wrote, is “discrete and combinatorial”: by breaking things down into pieces (words) and reassembling them in new ways, it allows speakers to produce “an infinite set of utterances with a finite set of elements”. “Manner and path of motion never happen separately in the world,” she says. “But we pull them apart and map them to separate things in a sentence. A cat observes an event, but they don’t break it down into an actor, an action and an acted-upon. What does the linguistic part of the brain do? It pulls things apart into pieces, that then get moulded into chunks of language.”

Since its emergence in the early 1980s, NSL has continued to grow. Following a spirited protest campaign in the early 2000s, which demanded that the deaf be allowed to continue their studies beyond primary school, two public secondary schools in Managua have begun providing interpreters. At one of them, in the neighbourhood of Bello Horizonte, around three-fifths of pupils in the school’s mixed classes are deaf; many hearing students have learned NSL in order to befriend and even date their deaf classmates. The national public university is training a new generation of teachers, who will offer deaf students the chance to study under a native speaker of their language for the first time. In 2009 the government declared NSL an official language. As a result, tele­casts of legislative speeches now feature NSL interpreters, and judges, priests and doctors are all learning it.

But as NSL has helped incorporate the deaf into Nicaraguan society, the language itself has had to evolve to keep pace. In the 1980s, NSL’s vocabulary grew organically, with new signs arising whenever speakers lacked a word for an idea they wanted to convey. Now that the language is being used to teach subjects like science, history and maths, this process has been reversed: in order for deaf students to understand a precise academic idea, a sign first needs to be invented for it. The advent of smartphones and social media has also produced rapid change. Even though literacy does not require hearing, deaf people tend to struggle with written communication, since they cannot map each letter to a corresponding sound. Emoji, however, are readily understood. As a result, NSL signers now text each other furiously in pictographic-heavy messages. An even better option is video chat: today’s deaf Nicaraguan teenagers have become adept at signing in one hand so they can hold their phones with the other.

As happens with so much in Nicaragua, the question of how NSL changes and who influences its development has become politically charged. To those who sympathise with the Sandinistas’ revolution, the fact that the language emerged at all is a triumph of Nicaraguan self-determination. For decades, advocates for the deaf in the United States have sought to foster an international deaf community by spreading ASL throughout the hemisphere. In the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua, however, these “linguistic imperialists” were unable to gain a foothold, giving the vulnerable native sign language room to take root.

Ever since Javier López decided to scrap his prized Costa Rican sign dictionary, he and ANSNIC have jealously fought to keep NSL free of foreign “contamination”. The government defers to the association both to produce the dictionary used in schools and to train and accredit interpreters. “Other Central American countries will copy the [ASL] dictionary, change the name and call it Honduran Sign Language,” gripes María López. “We say, ‘That’s a gringa sign, and we won’t use it. No one can pollute the language here.” These efforts have delighted the academic linguists studying NSL – virtually all of whom are American – as they have helped keep the natural experiment pristine into its fourth decade.

Whether such vigilance is really in the best interest of deaf Nicaraguans, however, is open to question. Despite NSL’s rapid growth, there are only perhaps 2,500 people in the world who speak it and just a few dozen interpreters who can translate it. In contrast, there are probably at least  500,000 fluent ASL signers in the United States alone. It serves as a lingua franca for deaf people throughout Latin America. Just as learning English can vastly improve the life prospects of hearing Spanish speakers, so too can ASL open doors for the deaf.

The notion that ASL must be kept at bay so that NSL can thrive has drawn ferocious criticism. Kegl has justified her decision not to teach ASL at the school she founded on the grounds that “we don’t want to kill indigenous language”. In a letter to the New York Times, Felicia Ackerman, a philosophy professor, retorted that she believed Kegl “would rather kill the life prospects of these children, by leaving them unable to communicate with the outside world”.

A question of interpretation
Matthew Barlow talks with a teacher from the Christian School for the Deaf at his home in Nicaragua

For parents who share this mindset, there is an alternative to Melania Morales. In 1998 Eva and Matthew Barlow, an American evangelical Christian couple – he is deaf, she is not – founded a school for the deaf on the outskirts of Managua. They promised to provide instruction in NSL and struck up a relationship with a nearby Christian college to train NSL interpreters.

The Barlows were well aware of the political minefield they were entering. “We’re foreigners,” Eva recognises. “Our policy as missionaries is to come to a country, learn the culture and try to respect what’s in place.” The school’s staff is predominantly local and includes a deaf faculty. And the Barlows insist that they teach exclusively in NSL and written Spanish. The only time they resort to ASL, they say, is during English classes.

In the eyes of López and ANSNIC, however, the Barlows are heirs to the American malefactors who propped up the Somozas and twice occupied the country. ANSNIC’s staff members say the $40 a month the school charges in tuition is exploitative of poor families, and accuse the Barlows of trying to convert their students, many of whom come from Catholic backgrounds, to evangelical Protestantism. The charge is particularly loaded given the region’s history of conquest by the Spanish, who sought to convert the natives to Christianity while stealing their gold and silver.

Even worse, they say, the school is surreptitiously infiltrating ASL into Nicaragua. “They don’t use American signs? Oh, come on,” says Amy Ortiz, the former teacher at Melania Morales who now interprets for ANSNIC. “Of course they do.” Getting on ANSNIC’s bad side has real-world consequences: the association refuses to license graduates from the interpreting course associated with the school, preventing them from finding work in the field.

The Barlows are careful not to return the animosity. “I didn’t come here on my own,” Eva says. “I came from someone higher. To Him be the glory, not us. We respect everyone who is working to help the deaf.”

Out of the hands of babes
Signing lesson at the Christian School for the deaf in Managua

Some of their students are far less polite. Cynthia Fornos has spent nearly her entire life at the Christian school: born deaf as a result of her mother’s bout of rubella during pregnancy, she was one of the five children who inaugurated its pre-school in 2004. She graduated last month and wants to go to college, but has no interest in training to become a teacher, the only university course for which instruction in NSL is currently available. Instead, she hopes to find an interpreter herself so she can read finance or accounting at a private university. Despite 13 years at the school, Fornos has maintained her family’s Catholic tradition. She says “brother Mateo and sister Eva” were generally respectful of her faith – though she says they did once ask her whether her priests told her that spirits lurked inside Catholic icons. She has stopped going to confession and taking the Eucharist only because her priest asked her to write down her statement on paper, promising to burn it afterwards. He feared that if she spoke through an interpreter, the interpreter would soft-pedal her sins.

Fornos is happy to confirm Ortiz’s charge of ASL-trafficking at the Christian school. When students there don’t know the sign for a word, she says, they first check the ANSNIC dictionary. However, it has only 1,200 words and has not been updated in 20 years. Most of the time, the word is absent, so they resort to a “linguistic loan” from another language. “We’re not putting it in the dictionary,” she says. “It’s just so we can communicate better. I think we should take ideas and contributions from other countries. Otherwise, what will we do if we travel?”

To Fornos, it is ANSNIC’s linguistic protectionism that is holding back the development of NSL. “The association thinks that every deaf person has to speak their version of the language,” she says. “But there are different signs in Nicaragua. My sign language has merged with Spanish and with sign languages from other countries. They say they respect our signs, but I don’t feel like they do. When we talk to them, they always say, ‘Come to the association. Change how you speak.’”

Javier López will never abandon his quest to keep NSL pure. But his true lifelong project is the mass adoption of NSL, and that effort has been so successful that the language now has far too many speakers for ANSNIC to control it. As NSL reaches more and more people, it will continue to grow, and to borrow from abroad. That will make it less distinctive for researchers, but ever more useful to its speakers. For all its value to linguists, NSL’s greatest contribution has been to deaf Nicaraguans, who have gone from isolation to inclusion within a single generation. “Learning signs has helped me understand and learn so much,” says Cienfuegos. “Now I’m not ashamed of being deaf, to be out on the street, because I have signs. Finally, I feel like a normal person.”