To the editor:
In the late 1950s, I began to study the sign language being used by my students and colleagues at Gallaudet University. From my initial research, the field of scientific study of the signed languages of deaf people has grown. Thus, I was more than a little dismayed to read the article by Lawrence Osborne in the Sunday magazine of Oct. 24 concerning the work of Judy Kegl on Nicaraguan Sign Language. The reader of this article is left with no inkling that there is currently a major debate in the fields of linguistics, psychology, and anthropology over the validity of the theory that human beings have an innately determined bioprogam to develop and acquire languages. Nor is the reader given any sense that there might be a fundamental ethical problem with the influence exerted by a hearing North American scientist over the creation of an educational system for deaf Central Americans.
Osborne's naïveté is first revealed in the title of the article—"A Linguistic Big Bang." It is just simply obvious that human beings can invent or acquire languages—otherwise we wouldn't have any. The question is whether this invention is guided by abstract rules cranked out by an innately determined "language organ," or whether it is guided and constrained by natural interactions with the objects and people in one's environment. It seems to me, and to many other scientists of language and human social behavior, that contrary to what the article asserts, the sign language of these Nicaraguan children makes a strong case for the latter argument, not the former. Osborne's lack of understanding is further revealed by his acceptance of Kegl's apparent claim that the children have been linguistically "uncontaminated" by either existing sign languages, such as American Sign Language (ASL), or by gestural communication with their parents, their fingerspelling teachers, or the other people in their social environment. He includes two clear examples of the children's knowledge of at least part of the ASL lexicon—the ASL fingerspelled "B" as the sign for "Babar" the elephant, and a photograph of the students using the ASL sign indicating applause. The best current statement of the counterargument that languages originate naturally from a gestural substrate and that there is no need to invoke an (as yet undiscovered) language organ, is put forth in Original Signs, by David F. Armstrong (Gallaudet University Press, 1999).
Osborne at least should have taken the trouble to familiarize himself with the major debates in linguistics and the study of language acquisition and should have addressed the appropriateness of using children for this kind of scientific research.
William C. Stokoe, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Gallaudet University
Founding Editor, Sign Language Studies
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