Marie Coppola, linguistic psychologist

The native user of sign language studies the invented gestures of deaf Nicaraguan children, adolescents, and adults to help decipher how the mind acquires language. Interview by Kayvon Sharghi

May 25, 2009

Photo courtesy of Marie Coppola

Marie Coppola was raised in a bilingual home. Her mother was born deaf and her father lost his hearing before he learned to speak. They all used American Sign Language to communicate, with Coppola serving as interpreter between her parents and the hearing world.

Now a postdoctoral researcher in psychology and a fellow at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago, Coppola uses her background as a native user of sign language—a person exposed to the language since birth—to study how people acquire language. For the past 13 years she has worked in Nicaragua, investigating how deaf children raised in the absence of conventional sign language invent manual gestures, called homesigns, to communicate with hearing family members.

Due to societal attitudes towards deaf people that precluded them from interacting with each other and forming a community, formal sign language did not exist in Nicaragua until the late 1970s. Then, a group of 50 deaf students began attending the Melania Morales School Center for Special Education in the capital city of Managua. Teachers noticed their students communicating with their hands. Unbeknownst to the teachers, they were witnessing the birth of a new language: Nicaraguan Sign Language. To help decipher these early signs, they contacted a group of linguists based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied Nicaragua’s indigenous languages and asked them to investigate.

One of the investigators was Judy Kegl, an MIT linguistics doctoral student who traveled to Nicaragua in 1985. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from MIT in cognitive science, Coppola accompanied Ann Senghas, a Kegl protégé and doctoral student studying developmental psycholinguistics at MIT, to Nicaragua in 1994 to examine the changes occurring in this new emerging language, which was only about 20 years old at the time. Together, they worked on identifying people who had entered the signing community at a young age, and at different points in the development of the language. Their signing patterns, the scientists reasoned, would be representative of what Nicaraguan Sign Language looked like at various stages in its evolution.

“That trip was a turning point in my life,” said Coppola at the 2009 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. There, she discussed her most recent research in Central America.

How did your background of having deaf parents and growing up as a native user of sign language motivate you to get into this area of research?

It shaped my experiences and interests in a strong way throughout my life. But growing up I had no idea you could study sign language and psychology and do research. I originally majored in biomedical engineering because I had a talent for doing math and science. It was a happy accident that I ended up at MIT, which is a hotbed for cognitive science and language acquisition research. That’s when I became aware that my background of having deaf parents and being a native user of sign language could be extremely useful in answering academic questions in those disciplines. After returning from Nicaragua in 1994, I decided to apply to graduate school and was accepted as a doctoral student into the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

What are homesigns and why do they exist?

Homesigns are gesture systems created by deaf people who grow up in a situation where they’re not exposed to a sign language. In countries like Nicaragua, there usually isn’t any special education system for them to go to. No one in their family uses a sign language, or they don’t have access to deaf people or a deaf community. Under these circumstances a deaf person may never become exposed to a conventional sign language, which is the case for many of the Nicaraguan people I work with. As a result they continue to use these invented gesture systems as their primary language to communicate with the people around them.

What resources do homesigners draw on in creating their gesture systems?

The hearing culture in Nicaragua has a lot of conventional gestures that everyone knows and understands. For example, one of them is this hand flapping at the mouth that means “eat.” Everyone in Nicaragua knows this gesture and uses it. They have another one that means drink, which is your thumb pointed up towards your mouth with the other fingers curled into the palm. If you’re a deaf child who is trying to invent his own language and you have all these conventional gestures at your disposal, that might help you to start. But these conventional gestures aren’t necessary for building homesigns; deaf children growing up in cultures with fewer conventional gestures also build quite systematic homesign systems.

"Dire poverty in Nicaragua precludes deaf kids from going to special education schools. I'm struck by their resilience and the kinds of things they can accomplish despite this enormous deficit in not having linguistic input."

What question are you trying to answer by studying homesigns?

There’s been a longstanding debate whether language is innate or comes from the environment. In the case where a person is deaf and they don’t have access to a sign language, you can see what kind of structure their brain is going to impose on the quasi-linguistic communication they can observe and how much language creation power one individual has. That gives us some insight into the typical course of language acquisition. Otherwise it would be an impossible experiment to do because you can’t ethically deprive a child of language input.

Does your research argue strongly in favor for one side of the debate?

Clearly social interaction is an important component. Language is not going to emerge fully formed out of the mind of an individual who’s bereft of social interactions. It’s also not innate in the sense that, even for homesigners, it still has to develop, but it does so in a very constrained way. Both components are crucial. I’m still not sure which part I lean towards. Figuring out how they interact with each other is the challenge.

You describe homesigns as a living fossil record of Nicaraguan Sign Language. What do you mean by that?

People who are still homesigners today are representative of the initial group of people who came together in the earliest stages of the formation of Nicaraguan Sign Language. They represent that deepest and oldest layer of the fossil record when people 30 years ago were just coming together with their homesign systems. Because the language is changing rapidly, we can look at the signing today to get an idea of what it looked like at that time.

How fast is it changing?

It’s changing extremely rapidly. You can have a structural component of the sign language that cohorts of Nicaraguan signers less than 10 years apart in age don’t understand.

What tools do you use to study homesigns in the communities you visit?

You don’t share a mutual language with homesigners, so you have to make sure you know what the person is saying if you want to understand the relation of their signs to their meaning. One way we do that is by using nonverbal materials. For example, I’ll show them a video of a man tapping a woman’s shoulder and ask them to describe what they saw using their homesign system. Usually I will have them describe it to one of their family members who is familiar with their system. I videotape all of that and bring it back to the lab and transcribe it, making detailed notations of how they expressed all the participants in the event, whether they used space to describe things, and determine whether there are internal consistencies in the way they communicated those events.

What happens to a homesign after it’s created?

You can invent a gesture system and use it yourself your whole life and nothing will ever happen to it. In the context when homesigners come together, like what happened in Nicaragua, you get a bunch of people who’ve used these different gesture systems as their primary language at home. Now they are interacting with each other as a community, and they have to use the same forms to mean the same things. A device from one individual’s homesign system can be picked up into the emerging sign language, and then you start seeing it get used for the same linguistic function, or for an entirely new function, as the language changes over time. Another possibility is that they can fail to be adopted.

Why would a homesign structure not be adopted?

That usually happens when a device is not a good candidate due to its being bound by context, inherent complexity, or lack of utility. For example, instead of inventing words for wood or black, some homesigners point to a real object to refer to a property of that object, like its material or color. That’s very handy, but can also be inconvenient when you want to talk about things that aren’t around. Another kind of device used by one homesigner is a very elaborate system of spatial modulations of the fingers. Events are set up in this little micro-world happening on the hand. Fingers represent different people in the event and are manipulated to show who’s doing what. One child may really have it down—he can do it fluently, rapidly, without any ambiguity in the message—yet that may be an extremely difficult device for others to adopt.

What is it like speaking with homesigners?

It’s always a challenge to put yourself in the position of somebody who doesn’t have a native language. I have to use every shred of information available to me, from the context to recollections of prior conversations I’ve had with the person, to build a coherent picture of what the homesigner is trying to communicate to me.

What does this research mean to you on a personal level?

It’s unfortunate that dire poverty and lack of resources in Nicaragua precludes deaf kids from going to special education schools and becoming part of a deaf community. Those deaf children eventually become deaf adolescents, who then become deaf adults. They must continue to use their homesign system as a primary means of communication their entire lives. I’m really struck by their resilience across the board and the kinds of things they can accomplish despite this enormous deficit in not having linguistic input. It’s too big to wrap my own mind around it, and I spend more time thinking about it than the average person.

You have a nonprofit organization called Manos Unidas. What is its purpose?

Based on my personal background of having two Deaf parents and witnessing firsthand the struggles of Deaf people who were not exposed to a sign language early in life, I feel very strongly that having a native language is a human right. It’s very difficult to see deaf children in the Nicaraguan communities who don’t have access to a native language only because they can’t afford a uniform to go to school. The organization identifies areas where we can facilitate access to education for those children.

How many children have you reached?

In the four years we’ve been operating, we’ve helped 20 to 30 kids attend school.

What’s one thing that studying homesigns has taught you?

Humans have a very powerful internal drive to communicate. Regardless of how much effort it takes and how little it seems at times that they’re understood, the fact that a single deaf person can invent a number of language-like characteristics from interacting with only their family members is pretty remarkable.

Kayvon Sharghi, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in biochemistry from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and a certificate in editing from the University of Washington. He has worked as a reporting intern at the news office of Stanford University, the Monterey County Herald, and the news office of Stanford Medical Center, where he produced multimedia materials. He will work as a multimedia science intern at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University.

© 2009 Kayvon Sharghi