In the United States, Deaf people have had the ability to communicate by using sign language since the early 1800s. But in Central America’s largest nation of Nicaragua, the Deaf community had no formalized language until 30 years ago.
This emerging language, known as Nicaraguan Sign Language, is the topic of a recent study by Anna Shusterman, assistant professor of psychology, and psychology major Lisa Drennan ’09. The language was first created by local children to communicate with their friends and family and is rapidly changing.
“Nicaraguan Sign Language is certainly not a hodge-podge of different sign languages – it has its own structure, its own grammar, its own phonology, and its own words,” Shusterman says. “So it’s of great interest to researchers who are interested in the birth and evolution of language.”
Shusterman, whose broader research focuses on the development of language and thought, works with the Deaf community in Managua, Nicaragua to understand which cognitive capacities are spared despite limitations in language, and which cognitive capacities suffer when language is impaired. She invited Drennan to accompany her on a 10-day research trip in June.