April 8, 2002
Dear SW List:
James Shepard-Kegl sent me an article that was published yesterday in
the Maine Newspapers....Congratulations, James and Judy...It is a
great article, and thanks for sharing! Val ;-)
Sunday, April 7, 2002
"Sign is spoken here"
By GLENN JORDAN, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
NORTH YARMOUTH -- Quickly and quietly, the silver coin passes between
and seemingly through the dexterous hands of Barney Vega, a
16-year-old visitor from Nicaragua.
His hand closes around the coin. Then, after a quick thump from his
other fist, his fingers open to reveal . . . only flesh.
As adept as he is at making a coin disappear, Barney is even more
proficient at making language sprout from the fingers and faces of
Nicaraguans like himself, who do not hear.
"He's a remarkable kid," said Andrew Donahue, a 42-year-old
linguistics student at the University of Southern Maine. "And he's a
very good teacher."
Donahue, who already has a degree in psychology, is one of 18
students enrolled in a Field Methods course at USM. Barney is helping
the college students learn to transcribe his signs into a written
form called SignWriting, originally developed by a dance instructor
as an aid to choreography.
"The first thing they ask me about," Barney signed to a visitor, "is
In English we say white house. In Spanish, the order is reversed:
casa blanca. How does Barney describe it? That's what the USM
students are trying to discover and document. (In sign languages,
nouns tend to precede adjectives.)
However, the most important reason for Barney's second trip to Maine
is to help prepare more textbooks in his native language for deaf
Nicaraguans. His native language, by the way, is only a year or two
older than Barney. More on that later.
Judy Shepard-Kegl is the USM professor who teaches Donahue's class.
Her husband, James Shepard-Kegl, works with Barney in an office at
their North Yarmouth home translating stories ranging from "The Three
Little Pigs" to Homer's "Odyssey," from history lessons to indigenous
folk tales. They translate stories from English into Nicaraguan Sign
Language (known to linguists as ISN, for Idioma de Signos
Nicaragłense), which is distinct from American Sign Language.
The Shepard-Kegls helped found and continue to run two deaf schools
in Nicaragua, one in Condega in the populous western area of the
country and another in Bluefields on the more remote east coast.
"In order to do these books," said James, a bearded civil rights
lawyer who directs the non-profit Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects
Inc., "we have to understand the language. How do they do
conditionals? How do they do relative clauses? To understand that,
you need native speakers."
Barney has quick hands, an expressive face and a patient, easy-going
nature. He also may be the most fluent signer of Nicaraguan Sign
Language. Because his deafness is genetic, he learned ISN as an
infant from a deaf aunt, Yvonne Mendez, now 29 and living in Los
Mendez was among the children in whom Nicaraguan Sign Language
blossomed, in what some experts have called a linguistic big bang, a
language created without instruction.
The story starts in 1979, when a revolution brought the Sandinistas
to power in Nicaragua. Soon after, they began a literacy campaign
that brought together previously isolated deaf students.
With no training in any sign language, their hearing,
Spanish-speaking teachers had little luck communicating with the
students, who had learned a variety of rudimentary gestures to
communicate at home. Soon enough it became clear the students,
particularly the youngest ones, were communicating with each other.
In 1986, the Nicaraguan government invited Judy Kegl-Shepard to help
figure out how. A linguist with a sign language background, Judy soon
cracked the code, and discovered the children had used the
rudimentary gestures as building blocks for an entirely new language.
"What they saw was a mishmash, but what came out on the other end was
a language," Judy said. "The reason all human language is similar is
that our brains all expect language to have certain properties. Our
expectations start to fill in the holes, and that's what these kids
The birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language offers strong evidence that
human language is instinctual.
"We're all born ready to create language," Judy said. "We just need
the raw materials, the trigger."
Until the Nicaraguan case, linguists had no way of ethically testing
such a theory; fossils don't reveal many linguistic clues. So what
Judy originally thought might take her a few weeks has turned into
her life's work.
Not only is she documenting and exploring the ways in which a new
language grows, she and James also are helping teach it to deaf
Nicaraguans throughout the Central American country, which borders
Costa Rica to the south and Honduras to the north.
Having a written form of the language -- a system that captures the
hand shapes, facial expressions and hand and body movements used to
communicate -- helps immeasurably. So far there are two compilations
of reading lessons, a math book, a geography book and a glossary that
approaches 2,000 words. Judy is working on a grammar book as well.
"Humans learn to read and write their native language before they
tackle somebody else's," James said. "What we're saying is, for these
deaf children, why treat them any different? So we're producing books
in their native language. Because to a deaf student in Bluefields,
Spanish is a foreign language."
Judy's scientific research is funded through education grants, but
the charitable work comes about entirely through private donations.
Last year it cost roughly $57,000 to run the two schools and provide
teacher training (so far six deaf Nicaraguans have come to Maine to
train with the Shepard-Kegls). The books, which are distributed free,
cost $40 each to produce, and there are 60 students in the two
"The difference, when they have books to work with, is just
tremendous," said James, flipping through a math book to reveal more
than simply numbers. "For word problems, which is applied math, this
book makes a whopping difference."
Judy's continuing research about the emergence of language also
should make a difference to educators everywhere. By following the
initial group that spawned the language, observing new deaf students
ranging in age from 3 to 40, and comparing acquisition to exposure in
more than 1,400 cases, her research reveals three critical windows.
"What we're finding," she said, "is if they're exposed below age 7,
they learn it like natives. From 8 to 15, sometimes they can get it
as well as a native, but there's a gradual decline. After about 15,
you find they really could not learn the language like we learn the
language, namely, natively."
With explicit training, particularly bright students can learn the
language after 15, and use it well, but it requires such
concentration that, if a student is tired or distracted, the language
"So for Barney, language is like breathing," Judy said. "But someone
exposed at 15, if you tire them a bit, the whole thing falls apart."
The implications are great. Parents of hearing-impaired children may
not want to wait until 12 or 13 before sending them to a school for
the deaf because, as Judy said, "There isn't something magical that
will happen anymore."
Similarly, educators of deaf students should recognize that older
students need explicit training. By 15 or so, a student's signing
doesn't improve simply by hanging around others who sign.
Unless that person happens to be a certain 16-year-old with a sly
sense of humor.
"It can be very frustrating to learn a language, but (Barney) puts
people at ease," said Donahue, the USM student who is learning
Nicaraguan Sign Language in preparation for a year of working at the
schools in Condega and Bluefields.
"He's patient and he seems to pick up on what you're getting and
you're not getting," Donahue said. "He's extremely observant of your
facial expressions and he's very articulate with his gestures."
Eager to show still more sleight of hand, Barney fetches a hat. In
goes the coin. You feel its weight. Somehow, he pulls it through the
Barney notices a visitor's appreciative reaction and grins. He's
quite a conjurer, this kid.
And his best magic has nothing to do with coins.