Our research seeks to uncover the psychological and linguistic factors that give rise to the structure of natural human language, within individuals and across a language community. Our primary objective is to discover the abilities all humans apply to acquire and use language, by capturing how those abilities create and shape language over generations, particularly when language exposure is initially incomplete. The recent emergence of a new sign language among Deaf children and adolescents in Nicaragua provides an opportunity to examine how grammatical systems develop without a pre- existing, complete language model. Over the past four decades, deaf Nicaraguans have been creating a new sign language. An initial cohort started with the gestures available in their environment and began to shape them into a new, grammatically complex system. Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) has continued to develop and change ever since, as new cohorts of children enter the community and learn the language from older peers. Now with archived video data of NSL going back two decades, and comparable data from other sign languages, we have the opportunity to tease apart certain factors that led to the developments we have observed in NSL. Accordingly, our research aims first, to characterize the influence of learners on the emerging linguistic structure of NSL. We will systematically compare sequential age cohorts, at multiple points in time, from earlier in NSL?s development (from our archives) to present-day, focusing on the word order and spatial devices for indicating who-does-what-to-whom, and the creation of categorical expressions for spatial relations and semantic transparency in the lexicon. We will also test whether NSL changed diachronically as predicted by biases in the motor system and acuity constraints in the visual system, by comparing lexical signs and narratives collected across decades of NSL, and comparing NSL to matching data in our archive from the older British Sign Language (BSL). In the process, we will continue to build and share the archive of video and written documentation of NSL. This growing archive is the first and only recording of a language from its origin. We are making use of it in the present grant, and are sharing it with other research laboratories carrying out other work, such as testing models of community, language growth and change.

Public Health Relevance

Our research on the emergence of a sign language in Nicaragua addresses a deep question about the origins of language in the mind of the human child. The question is central to the issue of creating adequately rich learning environments for children. That is, in which areas is a rich environment crucial for full language development, and in which areas are children able to make up for environmental gaps? The results will inform both researchers and clinicians about the complex interplay between natural human language abilities, the language environment, and language learning outcomes.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Language and Communication Study Section (LCOM)
Program Officer
Cooper, Judith
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Barnard College
Schools of Arts and Sciences
New York
United States
Zip Code
Coppola, Marie; Senghas, Ann (2017) Is it language (yet)? The allure of the gesture-language binary. Behav Brain Sci 40:e50
Kocab, Annemarie; Senghas, Ann; Snedeker, Jesse (2016) The emergence of temporal language in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Cognition 156:147-163
Goldin-Meadow, S; Brentari, D; Coppola, M et al. (2015) Watching language grow in the manual modality: nominals, predicates, and handshapes. Cognition 136:381-95
Horton, L; Goldin-Meadow, S; Coppola, M et al. (2015) Forging a morphological system out of two dimensions: Agentivity and number. Open Linguist 1:596-613
Kocab, Annemarie; Pyers, Jennie; Senghas, Ann (2014) Referential shift in Nicaraguan Sign Language: a transition from lexical to spatial devices. Front Psychol 5:1540
Richie, Russell; Yang, Charles; Coppola, Marie (2014) Modeling the emergence of lexicons in homesign systems. Top Cogn Sci 6:183-95
Rabagliati, Hugh; Senghas, Ann; Johnson, Scott et al. (2012) Infant rule learning: advantage language, or advantage speech? PLoS One 7:e40517
Flaherty, Molly; Senghas, Ann (2011) Numerosity and number signs in deaf Nicaraguan adults. Cognition 121:427-36
Senghas, Ann (2011) The Emergence of Two Functions for Spatial Devices in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Hum Dev 53:287-302
Pyers, Jennie E; Shusterman, Anna; Senghas, Ann et al. (2010) Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107:12116-20

Showing the most recent 10 out of 13 publications