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Novel use for the Bible Add to ...

Of all the uses one generally doesn't make of the Bible, relying on its old tales to elucidate something confused in science may be at the top of my list.

Last week, however, a paper appeared in the U.S. journal Science, it being as close to a place of holy writ as exists in the world's research community, which cried out for a biblical gloss.

The Science study described the appearance of a new language among children starting to go to schools for the deaf in Nicaragua 25 years ago. It was a signed language that the researchers said arose spontaneously when Nicaragua's formally isolated deaf people were congregated together for the first time.

For linguists, the entire enterprise was a big whoopee because they had never been able to view the birth of a language out of the endless silence of non-communication.

What the paper reported is that over time what had begun as simple gestures had become much more complicated. In general, children were more fluent; their language was more sequential and more segmented.

"They ( the child speakers) broke it down into bricks and they ended up with elements that you never see alone with gesture. They could assemble these into an infinite number of elements. They had a language," said lead researcher Ann Senghas, a psychologist at Columbia University.

As a result, there are presently somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people between the ages of 4 and 45 who speak Idioma de Signos Nicaragense (Nicaraguan Sign Language).

Now the first thing that may strike you is why, for heaven's sake, didn't the teachers in the school where the children went instruct them in International Spanish Sign Language? This would have allowed them to communicate not just with a few thousands of deaf people in Nicaragua, but with deaf people anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world.

The short answer is that there is no International Spanish Sign Language.

The Spanish-from-Spain deaf have their own hand generated tongue; the Argentines another, the Mexicans and the Panamanians yet others. Some Spanish-speaking countries, Paraguay with an estimated 300,000 deaf people, apparently have no language. Others, such as Belize and Andorra, use a variant of American Sign Language, which is the signed language of the U.S. and English Canada.

Well, you might say, couldn't the Nicaraguans have been taught a general International Sign Language then?

The even shorter answer to that is that ISL doesn't exist, although not for lack of trying.

In 1951, a committee of the World Federation of the Deaf meeting in Rome developed a kind of international pigeon sign language called Gesunto - an Italian word which roughly translates as "oneness of sign languages."

It was thrown out as international communication tool to the deaf world. But like Esperanto, its spoken equivalent, Gesunto effectively withered in the orchard of failed, good intentions.

Finally, instead of letting the children go through the awkward agonies of new language creation, why didn't the Nicaraguan teachers seize upon some already existent sign language - it didn't really matter which - and teach it in the schools.

There are several explanations for this. First, none of the hearing teachers in the Nicaraguan deaf school knew such languages at the time - and indeed knew next to nothing about teaching deaf children at all.

Secondly, according to Mr. Senghas, even if someone signing something such as American Sign Language had come into the school, it is not clear they would have had much luck teaching children what was essentially a totally foreign language.

"Children, even in the hearing world, learn languages best from peers," she says about the process which drove language formation. This explains in part why the Nicaraguan deaf have had the devil's own time learning written Spanish from their non-peer teachers.

Which brings me at last back to the Bible, and specifically to the story of the Tower of Babel.

The Bible says that at one time humans spoke only one language and this allowed them to embark on a giant communal enterprise - constructing a mighty city called Babel. This act of pride troubled a mighty God mightily because the effort was so immense in scope it seemed almost god-like.

Thus, the Bible has Jehovah thundering in Genesis 11:

"Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, so they might not understand one another.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city."

What occurred in Nicaragua was the reverse of the Babel story.

People, when they start to speak, don't speak universal languages, because they don't need to speak universal languages. All that matters is that they be understood by people around them. While there may be a universal instinct to talk, there is no instinctive need to talk to everyone.

So, Jehovah needn't have worried. What people ache to construct is not a Tower of Babel but a neighbourhood. And this is what the deaf of Nicaragua have done. They are using they new language skills to establish deaf social clubs, create deaf association to lobby the government to establish a high school, and socialize enough to marry amongst themselves.

Thus, in Babel-like Internet age it is comforting to know that like politics, communication remains fundamentally local.

"Sure its nice to talk to people on other continents, but that doesn't impact on the quality of our life," Mr. Senghas said. "But just having a language does. The effect of that is immense."

 

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