Of all the changes within Nicaragua to come out of the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in 1979, perhaps the least anticipated was the birth of a new language. Nicaraguan Sign Language is the only language spontaneously created, without the influence of other languages, to have been recorded from its birth. And though it came out of a period of civil strife, it was not political actors but deaf children who created the language’s unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
When the Sandinista National Liberation Front gained power, they embarked on what has been described as a “literacy crusade,” developing programs to promote fluency in reading Spanish. One such initiative was opening the first public school for deaf education, the Melania Morales Special Education Center, in Managua’s Barrio San Judas. According to Ann Senghas, a professor of psychology at Barnard College who has studied NSL, it was the first time in the history of the country that deaf children were brought together in large numbers.
These children, who ranged in age from four to 16, had no experience with sign language beyond the “home signs” they used with family members to communicate broad concepts. American Sign Language, which has existed since the early 19th century, is used throughout the Americas and is often considered a “lingua franca” among deaf people whose first sign language is a national or regional one. But the first Nicaraguan deaf school did not use ASL or any signs at all. Instead, they focused on teaching children to speak and lip-read Spanish.
Read more: Atlas Obscura