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Sign Language >> Examples
Signing. Click for larger image.
Yuri Mejia, a student at the Escuelita de Bluefields school, signing “turtle” in Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Credit: Christina Gomez-Mira; courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.
Signing. Click for larger image.
Yuri Mejia, a student at the Escuelita de Bluefields school, signing “friend” in Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Credit: Christina Gomez-Mira; courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.
Signing. Click for larger image.
Yuri Mejia, a student at the Escuelita de Bluefields, signing “drive” in Nicaraguan Sign Language..

Credit: Christina Gomez-Mira; courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc.

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) arose in the early 1980s when hundreds of previously isolated deaf individuals were brought together in schools for the first time—the result of an educational reform movement dedicated to providing literacy training and a fourth-grade education to everyone. For virtually the first time, it became possible to directly observe the emergence of a new language.

A New Language Develops

This case is particularly interesting because this language arose not as the result of language contact or the creolization (merging) of previously existing languages, but rather from the merging of idiosyncratic gesture systems (called "home signs") that were used for communication within the immediate family by the first generation of deaf children to enter the schools. Home signers quickly began to share their idiosyncratic systems. Young children exposed to a mix of gesturing began to produce a communication form radically different from their input. The new form was more fluid, more complex and wholly language-like.

With no coexisting signed languages and limited access to Spanish as a result of low literacy and the inability to hear, the only possible source of this highly complex linguistic structure is the human brains of those very young first language learners.

Over the course of 17 years, NSF-supported researcher Judy Kegl of the University of Southern Maine has generated an extensive archive of Nicaraguan Sign Language—including vocabulary and sentence structure. Her work has prompted a study of the entire population of signers in the region that will address questions about factors in sign fluency such as age and exposure to signing, the issue of critical mass (i.e., "How many gesturers does it take to make a language?”) and the process by which a language emerges.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) has been a focus of NSF-sponsored research. For example, Ronnie B. Wilbur and Avinash C. Kak of Purdue University use a novel approach to the problem of automatic recognition, and eventually automatic translation, of ASL. The approach takes advantage of the fact that signs are composed of components (handshape, location, orientation, movement), in much the same way that words are composed of consonants and vowels.

The Wilbur-Kak project uniquely integrates several areas of basic research: linguistic research on the structure of signs in ASL, psycholinguistic research on human perception of ASL and advanced techniques from statistical pattern recognition and computer vision. The long-term goal is an advanced machine translation device that would help signers interact with speakers in practical settings such as the workplace and classrooms.

Other ASL Projects

Sociolinguistics – Ceil Lucas of Gallaudet University is analyzing sociolinguistic variation in ASL. She is examining videotapes of conversational ASL as produced by deaf signers from different parts of the U.S. Studies of sociolinguistic variation are important because they inform our understanding of the fundamental nature of language and of how languages change.

Psycholinguistics - Karen Emmorey of San Diego State University is conducting the first experiments using head-mounted eye tracking technology to study the eye behaviors of ASL signers —including native signers and late learners. She will compare the eye gaze and eye movements of deaf and hearing subjects as they produce and perceive ASL.

Tactile ASL – Karen Petronio of Eastern Kentucky University is examining Tactile American Sign Language, a variety of ASL used primarily by deaf-blind adults who were born deaf and with a hereditary condition that causes a slow loss of vision. They used 'visual' ASL as their primary means of communication until loss of vision required them to switch to tactile.

Irish Sign Language

Barbara LeMaster of California State University, Long Beach conducts research on a rare and dying form of gendered Irish Sign Language (ISL) used in Dublin, Ireland. In one segment of the Dublin deaf community, the native vocabularies for women and men are so different that they can impair communication on the most mundane topics. For example, men and women have different signs for everyday terms, such as 'cat,' 'Monday,' 'night' and 'red.' These varieties emerged from sex-segregated education at two residential schools for the deaf in Dublin.

Researchers want to document these differences for several reasons.

  • No documented language, whether spoken or signed, has as extreme gender differences as this one.
  • Unlike other gender different situations, these gender varieties are the product of language socialization experiences that completely segregated females and males—as though deaf girls and boys grew up on separate islands.
  • This research provides foundational data for the future production of a dictionary of gendered ISL, and for any current and future work tracking the dissemination of these gendered signs, and their meanings, over time.

By Elizabeth Malone

Language and Linguistics A Special Report