Have you ever wondered how languages are made? Who invents all the rules anyway? Are we really ‘hard wired’ for language acquisition or is it something we learn if given the right set of circumstances? Or both?
It’s rare that we get to see the birth of a whole new language…one that develops completely naturally, without any help from role models or teachers. But that’s exactly what happened in Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, and it gives us great insight into the ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’ question of language acquisition.
Prior to the early ’80’s, most deaf children in Nicaragua had little or no contact with other deaf children or adults. Their means of communication were limited to a set of ad hoc gestures that ‘made sense’ to family members. But when the government opened its first school for the deaf in Managua, all that changed. Two hundred children had the opportunity, for the first time, to convey their thoughts, feelings, and ideas as fully as any hearing child in Nicaragua, or around the world. But first they had to create the means to do so…
According to Ann Stenhgas of the Language Acquisition Development and Research Laboratory in New York City:
“…as (the children) interacted, they began to change the gestures and home signs they were using. Their vocabulary grew quickly over those first few years, just like when a little child learns to talk. Their signs became more systematized, more regular, and less gestural. The structure of signed sentences became much more complicated. By the time this generation became adults, at the end of the 1980s, their signs were rapid and fluent. The language had grown to resemble other languages around the world. It could now express ideas as complex as any other language.”
It joined the family of more than 6,300 human languages and is called Nicaragua Sign Language, or NSL.
Languages share an essential, bottom-line characteristic: they’re governed by as strict set of intricate rules. But who ‘makes up’ these rules? I think the answer comes from the children of Nicaragua. Communities of people who need to interact in similar ways not only create language, they can do so in less than a decade. Wow!
Sometimes our accent reduction learners are amazed by the number of pronunciation rules that govern the American accent. At the beginning, it may seem overwhelming. But I’m on the side of “we’re hard wired for language acquisition” – all aspects of it. Language learning is part of our universal, human experience. And just as a decade is more like a nanosecond with respect to inventing an entire language, 15 hours of instruction (our standard English pronunciation training program) is a blink of the eye.
It’s not an easy task to learn a new language, but I think we can all be inspired by the creators of NSL. For those who are mastering a second language, rest assured that we’re programmed for success.