Laura Horton, PhD Candidate, Comparative Human Development and Linguistics
As I make my way down the precipitously steep hill from the parque central towards the Xolacul neighborhood, I am grateful that the municipial government of Nebaj has seen fit to extend the concrete pavement this far. I jump out of the street, over the deep gutter, to avoid the tuk-tuks that race around a large truck unloading cases of Guatemala’s signature beer, “El Gallo,” at a local cantina. I hurry on, past where the pavement ends, to a deeply rutted gravel and dirt street up the hill and further away from the center of town.
I pass tiendas and tortilleras, opening up for business, as kids make their way to school in matching uniforms. I arrive at La Escuela Oficial para Educacion Especiál de Nebaj (EOEE), the local school for special education, around 8:30. The early-arriving students are sweeping up the courtyard and classrooms, sprinkling water on the covered porch to keep the dust down, and picking up trash from the road in front of the school. Older students lean on the front gate, catching up on yesterday’s news—their hands waving and pointing and gesturing fluidly, occasionally punctuated by headshakes, pushing, shoving and chasing. These students are deaf, and while some have deaf relatives at home, others only interact with other deaf people when they are at school, with other deaf peers.
The school enrolls students from the age of three with a wide range of disabilities including physical handicaps, learning disabilities and Downs syndrome. There are also 5–8 deaf students who attend, depending on the year. None of the deaf students at the school has enough residual hearing to learn Ixhil, the Mayan language spoken in the community, or Spanish, the language children learn when they begin attending school. None of the teachers at the school knows LENSEGUA, the official sign language of Guatemala, used primarily in Guatemala City, nine hours south of Nebaj.
The deaf students thus invent their own gestural systems to communicate—with their hearing family members, with their teachers and with each other. These gestural systems, called homesign systems (1), have been studied in many countries around the world where, like Nebaj, there are deaf children and adults who cannot hear the spoken language in their environment, and who are not part of a community that uses a national sign language (2). These studies have established that homesign systems created by individual deaf children and adults are often internally consistent and share many properties with established languages (3). When individual deaf homesigners are brought together in a community or institutional setting, like a school, they can converge on a shared sign language within a few age-cohort “generations.” The daily contact between homesigners, combined with transmission of the manual communication system to a new age-cohort generation of deaf children who enter into the community, gives rise to a new sign language, significantly insulated from contact with the surrounding spoken language(s) (4).
After school finishes for the day, I go to Ana and Emilio’s house to try a new elicitation task with them. I arrive with my video cameras, tripod and backpack full of toys and books. I chat briefly with their mom, who is headed out to the market, and then set up the cameras opposite to three plastic chairs dragged out onto the covered porch from inside the house. Ana sits at a table across from Emilio with a book of photos of familiar objects and places, including animals, vehicles, tools and food. Emilio sits next to his younger brother, Marco, who is hearing. They are facing Ana and Emilio holds a paper with a grid of 16 pictures. Ana describes each photo to Emilio and he then tries to select the correct picture from his array of photos.
This game helps me document and understand Ana and Emilio’s homesign systems in two ways. First, I am recording the signs that Ana uses to describe everyday things in her world. I will take this data back to Chicago and code it for features like handshape and movement to understand how his signs are similar or different from other homesigners in Nebaj, as well as other established and emergent sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) or Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Second, this “matcher” task allows me to observe Ana and Emilio interacting with each other, to observe how they resolve miscommunications and negotiate their homesign systems when there is confusion.
Ana turns to a page with a photo of a horse. She uses a gesture that many hearing people employ when talking about animals across Latin America, a flat hand extended from her body, with the palm facing inwards. She then gestures with her hands at her shoulders, a common description of a person or animal carrying a heavy load. Emilio looks up from the array, having missed this sequence, and Ana repeats only the carry gesture. Emilio points out a photo of a pile of firewood, often carried in the way that Ana demonstrated. She looks down, indicating that he has not selected the correct photo based on her description so he searches the array again. His little brother Marco taps him on the shoulder and gestures to indicate large ears, similar to a horse, then waves his hand in front of his mouth, a common gestural emblem to mean “eating” used by both hearing people and the deaf homesigners in Nebaj. Emilio looks back at the array of photos and points out a photo of a dog. Ana, frustrated, turns her book around to show Emilio the photo of the horse. He finds the matching picture in his array and points to it repeatedly.
This missed communicative exchange is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, not least because Ana had trouble picking out the same photo of a horse from the same array, moments earlier when Emilio was the one describing the photos to her. It may seem surprising that these siblings, the only two deaf children in a family of eight, do not share the same sign for an animal that they see every day in the roads and fields around their home. It is possible that, had Emilio seen Ana make the animal gesture before the carry gesture, he could have selected the correct photo from his array. It is also interesting that, when Emilio did not select the correct photo on the first try, Marco, his brother who is not deaf, recognizes the structure of the task and the fact that he must sign to Emilio to communicate a piece of missing information to him. Even when Marco supplies the information that Emilio missed when Ana described the horse the first time (that it was an animal and that it was eating) Emilio chooses a different animal from the array. Ana does not attempt to clarify for Emilio, instead showing him her photo of the horse after he has incorrectly chosen photos of firewood and a dog.
This brief interaction illustrates the fragility and contingent nature of communication for homesigners in Nebaj. They navigate their world trying to communicate with a variety of people who do not share their modality of communicating (visual-manual homesign versus oral-aural spoken language), much less their particular communicative system. Sometimes, it seems that even a sibling who is also deaf, and also a homesigner, does not automatically entail comprehension between homesigners. The question I seek to answer with my data is how these kinds of interaction, between siblings who are both homesigners, between siblings who are deaf and hearing, between homesigning children and their homesigning parents, and between homesigning peers at school, affect the structure and stability of emergent communication systems.
View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala
The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)
Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala
(1) Frishberg (1987); Goldin-Meadow (2003)
(2) Researchers distinguish “national” sign languages from local, village, and indigenous sign languages based on the number of users, the length of time the language has been in use, and the resources (use in schools, access to interpreting services) available to signers who use the language. In some communities, for example, there is a high prevalence of hereditary deafness and both hearing and deaf individuals are thus exposed to a shared sign language; these systems are often referred to as “village” sign languages.
(3) Goldin-Meadow et al (2009); Coppola & Newport (2005)
(4) A recent example is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a sign language that started just 50 years ago with the first state-supported schools for special education in Managua. NSL has been extensively documented: Kegl & Iwata (1985); Senghas, Senghas & Pyers (2004); Polich (2005)
Coppola, M. & Newport, E. (2005). Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(52), 19249-19253.
Frishberg, N. (1987). Home sign. In J. Van Cleve (ed.), Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness (Vol. 3) New York: McGraw Hill. 128–131.
Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.
Goldin-Meadow, S., Özyürek, A., Sancar, B., & Mylander, C. (2009). Making language around the globe: A cross-linguistic study of homesign in the United States, China, and Turkey. In J. Guo, E. Lieven, N. Budwig & S. Ervin-Tripp (eds.), Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language: Research in the tradition of Dan Isaac Slobin. N.Y.: Taylor & Francis, 27-39.
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Polich, L. (2005). The Emergence of the deaf community in Nicaragua: "With sign language you can learn so much." Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Senghas, R., Senghas, A., & Pyers, J. (2004). The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In S. T. Parker, J. Langer, & C. Milbrath (Eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 287-306.
The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.