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Deaf Children Can Create Own Sign Language

It evolves in ways that are similar to verbal communication, Nicaraguan study shows

TUESDAY, Feb. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Deaf children can develop their own language-like gesture systems that expand in the same way that verbal skills grow in other children as they mature.

That's the finding from a University of Chicago researcher who has studied deaf children in Nicaragua for many years.

"Since 1996, I have been working with deaf adolescents and adults in Nicaragua who ... have invented their own sign languages that they use with their families, friends and neighbors. I have learned that these small languages have many characteristics of languages that are signed and spoken around the world," research associate Marie Coppola said in a university news release.

"Other studies on this 'homesigning' have usually stopped at the point the children go to school, but I have been able to follow children in Nicaragua who are not near a special education school and accordingly continue developing their homesigns independently," she said.

Her research is the first to show that homesigning forms a foundation that leads to more sophisticated, complicated communication.

Coppola noted that Nicaraguans use gestures frequently when they speak, and many of those gestures, such as those used to describe eating, were consistent in their form. Deaf children pick up on these gestures and their meanings, and also invent other gestures they use to communicate.

This ability underlies the growth of a new sign language called Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was developed at a school for the deaf in the capital city Managua. When the school opened in the late 1970s, it was staffed with teachers who didn't use sign language and tried to get the students to speak and read people's lips. The students developed their own sign language in order to communicate with each other.

The homesign systems the children brought with them to the school "served as the seeds for the new sign language that developed as they began interacting with each other regularly," Coppola said.

Her research was presented in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

More information

PBS has more about Nicaraguan Sign Language.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Chicago, news release, Feb. 15, 2009

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