Connecting language learning and language evolution: The creation of a sign language in Nicaragua
Languages are highly patterned abstract systems, shared within communities of speakers. Where do their patterns come from, and why are some characteristics apparently universal across languages? The birth of a new, natural human language provides an opportunity to observe how such structure arises. We consider the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a young, urban sign language that emerged from within a community of children brought together in an educational setting in the 1970s. Originating in gestural communication among 50 children, NSL is a rich, natural language with over 1500 users today. By taking an apparent time approach, comparing present-day age cohorts, we can capture patterns of change in the linguistic structure of the language as it was transmitted over successive generations of learners.
Using data from the emerging lexicon and basic sentence structure, I will illustrate how children’s learning processes, applied iteratively, progressively shape language as it is passed from one learner to the next, ultimately producing a patterned system that is highly learnable. Specifically, we will examine the boundary between analog and categorical symbolic representation by observing their initial appearance and conventionalization. Categorical elements enable combinatoriality, a proposed linguistic universal. If categorical constructions originate as analogical, they do not fully displace them; today’s younger Nicaraguan signers use the two systems in parallel. The nature of such changes over generations provides insight into the nature of learners leaving their imprint.
The talk will be given by Ann Senghas, the CBRLM’s visiting Fulbright scholar.
Dr Senghas comes to us from Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City, where her research examines the emergence of grammatical structure in a new sign language being created by sequential generations of deaf children and adolescents in Nicaragua. More generally, she is interested in language acquisition and language evolution.
When: Aug 18, 1pm (Montreal time)
Where: online (link will be sent in advance)
For questions or technical issues please contact email@example.com