Creating a Language

One of the greatest mysteries about the development of Homo sapiens concerns the acquisition of what is arguably our most important skill: language.  It is regarded by many scientists as the single most critical faculty separating us from the other animals.  It is the attribute that allowed knowledge of discoveries such as tool-making to spread between peoples and across generations, to audiences far larger than those who might have seen something with their own eyes.  But how did our ancestors learn it?  Many questions in science can be answered, or at least investigated, by means of controlled experiments.  Answering the question of how a language is created on that basis would seem to be nearly impossible.

However, an article by Dan Rosenheck called “Signs and Wonders”, which appeared about a year ago in The Economist 1843, a bi-monthly culture magazine published in London, describes an accident of history and politics that sheds light on the development of language.  And it also makes some interesting points about one of the fundamental precepts of voice acting. 

A School for the Deaf

In 1977, the wife of a son of Anastasio Somoza, then the president of Nicaragua, established a school for children with disabilities in that country’s capital, Managua.  Two years later, the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, but the school survived and thrived since the Sandinistas wanted to encourage education.  In addition, the school was expanded to include vocational training for deaf adults.

At that time, there were two principal approaches to education for the deaf:  the traditional “oralist” approach, whereby students were taught to read lips and enunciate words despite not being able to hear them, and an approach that used sign language.  Sign language was quickly gaining adherents in the United States (as American Sign Language, or “ASL”) and much of the rest of the world, while the Soviet Union and East Germany, countries to which the Sandinistas looked for guidance in the 1970s, continued to use the “oralist” approach.  Since sign language was being adopted by the Americans, with whom the Sandinistas were locked in political struggle and worse, it was rejected.

In the 1980s, the number of deaf children attending the school in Managua grew.  But at the same time that teachers in the school continued to rigidly enforce the oralist approach, the children naturally also interacted outside of school.  And it was in those unstructured interactions that they began to create a language of their own, using their hands, beyond the influence of ASL or any other existing signing system.  Toward the end of that decade, this organically developing system was recognized as Nicaraguan Sign Language – NSL – a separate and distinct form of communication.

Study Abroad

So, late in the 1980s, linguists from other countries started going to Nicaragua to study NSL and its users.  By that time, there were users who had been exposed to NSL for many years, as well as those who were new to it.  There was a pipeline of users, each with distinct levels of both individual and collective experience.

The first cohort of NSL users, who were generally older, had created gestures for ideas or events, but little grammar, so it was difficult for them to express sentences or paragraphs.  Younger users of NSL, who had benefitted both from initial exposure to it at a younger age, and from the collective development of the language by the older students, could use it with greater speed and more fluency.  (Note that this is the opposite of what happens in the spoken realm, where sophistication of language use increases with age.)

The Great Idea

In studying the various age cohorts of NSL users, researchers discovered a key difference. 

The “first generation” of users, for whom NSL had developed from the oralist tradition as promulgated by Spanish-speaking teachers, had used Spanish syntax, along with symbols, to express ideas.  As an example, the phrase “he gives, she receives” would be expressed using separate gestures in the same order as one would speak it, with a separate gesture corresponding to each of the four words in the phrase. 

The “current generation” of users at the time of the study, who were generally younger and who had used NSL for more of their lives, went one step further, using physical space to help them communicate.  For example, in the simple sentence above, they would use their hands to assign one physical location to the man (on the left of their body, for example), and another to the woman (on the right).  Having done that, they could move their hands from the location for “man” to the one for “woman”, at the same time signing the verb “to give”, and express the entire thought in one gesture rather than four.  Communication on this topic was therefore faster and more efficient.

The article does not examine the underlying brain science.  What happens in the brains of both speakers and listeners – or signers and viewers – when physical gestures are used to assist communication?  Clearly the physical gestures enhance meaning for all. But regardless of the brain science, the fact is that the creators of NSL discovered, in the course of creating a language, that the physical representation of space helps them communicate more efficiently. 

So, my fellow voice actors, every coach who has recommended that you use your hands and body in the booth (and it was probably every coach you ever had)…here is proof they were right!

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