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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
"In the 1970s, a group of deaf Nicaraguan schoolchildren invented a new language. The kids were the first to enrol in Nicaragua’s new wave of special education schools. At first, they struggled with the schools’ focus on Spanish and lip-reading, but they found companionship in each other. It was the first time that deaf people from all over the country could gather in large numbers and through their interactions – in the schoolyard and the bus – Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) spontaneously came into being.
NSL is not a direct translation of Spanish – it is a language in its own right, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary. Its child inventors created it naturally by combining and adding to gestures that they had used at home. Gradually, the language became more regular, more complex and faster. Ever since, NSL has been a goldmine for scientists, providing an unparalleled opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. And in a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College, it even tells us how language shapes our thought.
By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.
Here is a language that was learned by successive waves of children whose mental skills were relatively mature, who all came from the same culture, and who all learned the language at the same age.
In most sign languages, signers map the positions of real-world objects using their hands, rather than using words like ‘left’, ‘inside’ or ‘over’. Someone signing a cat on a table would place one hand, representing a cat, over the other, representing the table, with no separate sign for ‘on’. The same works for left and right, with the added rule that usually, the signer represents the scene from their own perspective.
But NSL hasn’t quite got to that stage yet. In the first version developed in the 1970s, the children hadn’t settled on a consistent way of indicating left and right, and the locations of objects in their conversations are fairly ambiguous. The second group of children to expand NSL in the 1980s had more specific conventions for position.
Pyers compared the abilities of people from both groups, now fully grown adults, in two spatial tests. First, she led them into a small room with a single red wall. She hid a token in one corner of the room, blindfolded the children and spun them around until they lost their bearings. When she removed the blindfold, the children had to say where the token was. The second test, like the first, involved hiding a token in the corner of a room, but this time the room was a tabletop model that was rotated while the children were blindfolded.
In both tests, the second group of adults (who learned the more advanced form of NSL) outperformed the first group. Even though their memories and ability to understand the tasks were just as good, the expanded vocabulary of geographical gestures that they learned as children also gave them better spatial abilities well into adulthood.
By comparing the first group of NSL signers to typical children, Pyers also learned something about what’s going on in their heads. Children find the task easy and answer quickly but they often make mistakes. They’ll orient themselves to the geometry of the room, using the long and short walls to tell them where the token is. But they tend to ignore the red wall landmark so when they make mistakes, they usually go for the corner diagonally opposite to the correct one.
The first group of NSL signers were very different. They were more accurate, suggesting that their experience and maturity does at least count for something. Their mistakes are evenly distributed around the three other corners, suggesting that they use neither the landmark nor the room’s geometry to help them. And they took a long time over the test and said that they found it very difficult. They were aware of their own uncertainty, as adults often are, but they simply didn’t have a reliable mental map of the room and its hidden token.
Pyers explains, “The first-cohort signers find these tasks challenging because they do not have the language to encode the relevant aspects of the environment that would help them solve the spatial problem.” She added, “[They] did not have a consistent linguistic means to encode ‘left of’.”
white people will solve this problem the way that they solved the election crisis in Iran – through Facebook and Twitter status updates. In 2009, millions of white people took 35 seconds to turn their twitter profiles green, and consequently sent a very powerful message to the leaders of Iran. Their message was that they wanted their friends to know that they would stop at nothing to ensure freedom and democracy for the Iranian people. Thanks in large part to that effort Iran is now completely democratic.