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Noam Chomsky and Deafness
Updated: Sunday 19 November 1995
* Jean Boutcher sent the following missive to one of the Deaf-related mailing lists (I forget which one). I was so impressed by its contents that I placed it here and ran out to get the book to she quotes.

Date: Thu, 14 Jul 1994 08:57:22 -0700
Subject: Re: Chomsky

Steven Pinker writes in The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language:

(Page 36 et seq.) These fascinating discoveries are among many that have come from the study of sign languages of the deaf. Contrary to popular misconceptions, sign languages are not pantomimes and gestures, inventions of educators, or ciphers of the spoken language of the surrounding community. They are found wherever there is a community of deaf people, and each one is a distinct, full language, using the same kinds of grammatical machinery found worldwide in spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language, used by the deaf community in the United States, does not resemble English, or British Sign Language, but relies on agreement and gender systems in a way that is reminiscent of Navajo and Bantu.

Until recently there were no sign languages at all in Nicaragua because deaf people remained isolated from one another. When the Sandinista government took over in 1979 and reformed the educational system, the first schools for the deaf were created. the schools focused on drilling the children in lip reading and speech, and as in every case where that is tried, the results were dismal. But it did not matter. On the playgrounds and schoolbuses the children were inventing their own sign system, pooling the makeshift gestures that they used with their families at home. Before long the system congealed into what is now called the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaraguense (LSN). Today LSN is used, with varying degrees of fluency, by young deaf adults, aged seventeen to twenty-five, who developed it when they were ten or older. Basically, it is a pidgin. Everyone uses it differently, and the signers depend on suggestive, elaborate circumlocutions rather than on a consistent grammar.

But children like Mayela, who joined the school around the age of four, when LSN was already around, and all the pupils younger than her, are quite different. Their signing is more fluid and compact, and the gestures are more stylized and less like a pantomime. In fact, when their signing is examined close up, it is so different from LSN that it is referred to by a different name, Idioma de Signos Nicaraguense (ISN). LSN and ISN are currently being studied by the pscycholinguists, Judy Kegl, Miriam Hebe Lopez, Annie Senghas. ISN appears to be a creole, created in one leap when the younger children were exposed to the pidgin signing of the older children -- just as Bickerton would have predicted. ISN has spontaneously standardized itself; all the young children sign it in the same way. The children have introduced many grammatical devices that were absent in LSN,and hence they rely far less on circumlocutions. For example, an LSN (pidgin) signer might make the sign for "talk to" and then point from the position of the talker to the position of the hearer. But an ISN (creole) signer modifies the sign itself, sweeping it in one motion from a point representing the talker to a point representing the hearer. This is a common device in sign languages, formally identical to inflecting a verb for agreement in spoken languages. Thanks to such consistent grammar, ISN is very expressive. A child can watch a surrealistic cartoon and describe its plot to another child. The children use it in jokes, poems, narratives, and life histories, and it is coming to serve as the glue that holds the community together. A language has been born before our eyes.

(Page 36 et seq.) When deaf infants are raised by signing parents, they learn sign language in the same way that hearing infants learn spoken language. But deaf children who are not born to deaf parents -- the majority of deaf children -- often have no access to sign language users as they grow up, and indeed are sometimes deliberately kept from them by educators in the 'oralist' tradition who want to force them to master lip reading and speech. (Most deaf people deplore these authoritarian measures.) When deaf children become adults, they tend to seek out deaf communities and begin to acquire the sign language that take proper advantage of the communicative media available to them. But by then it is usually too late; they must then struggle with sign language as a difficult intellectual puzzle, much as a hearing adult does in foreign language classes. Their proficiency is notably below that of deaf people who acquired sign language as infants, just as adult immigrants are often permanently burdened with accents and conspicuous grammatical errors. Indeed, because the deaf are virtually the only neurologically normal people who make it to adulthood without having acquired a language, their difficulties offer practically good evidence that successful language acquisition must take during a critical window of opportunity in childhood.

The psycholinguists Jenny Singleton and Elissa Newport have studied a nine-year-old profoundly deaf boy, to whom they gave the pseudonym Simon, and his parents, who are also deaf. Simon's parents did not acquire sign language until the late ages of fifteen and sixteen, and as a result they acquired it badly. In ASL, as in many languages, one can move a phrase to the front of a sentence and mark it with a prefix or suffix (in ASL), raised eyebrows and a lifted chin) to indicate that it is the topic of the sentence. The English sentence ELVIS I REALLY LIKE is a rough equivalent. But Simon's parents rarely used this construction and mangled it whend they did. For example, Simon's father once tried to sign the thought MY FRIEND, HE THOUGHT MY SECOND CHILD, HE THOUGHT HE WAS DEAF. It came out as MY FRIEND THOUGHT, MY SECOND CHILD, HE THOUGHT HE WAS DEAF -- a bit of sign salad that violates not only ASL grammar but, according to Chomsky's theory, the Universal Grammar that governs all naturally acquired human languages (later in this chapter we will see why). Simon's parents had also failed to grasp the verb inflection system of ASL. In ASL, the verb TO BLOW is signed by opening a fist held horizontally in front of the mouth (like a puff of air). Any verb in ASL can be modified to indicate that the action is being done continuously: the signer superimposes an arclike motion on the sign and repeats it quickly. A verb can also be modified to indicate that the action is being done to more than one object (for example, several candles): the signer terminates the sign in one location in space, and then repeats it but terminates it at another location. These inflections can be combined in either of two orders: BLOW toward the left and then toward the right twice. The first order means "to blow out the candles on one cake, and then another cake, then the first cake again, then the second cake again"; the second means "to blow out the candles on one cake continuously." This elegant set of rules was lost on Simon's parents. They used the inflections inconsistently and never combined them onto a verb two at a time, though they would occasionally use the inflections separately, crudely linked with signs like THEN. In many ways Simon's parents were like pidgin speakers.

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