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Models, Signs, and Universal Rules

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An Alternative Explanation

The gestures of all infants under one year of age can hardly be called language, but Judy and James Kegl, their fellow investigators in Nicaragua, and Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, find that the gesturing of young children in some of the new schools for deaf students in Nicaragua actually amounts to a new language the children have created. They claim that it is grammatical according to its own rules—the rules of universal grammar genetically embedded in human brains and that it proves language is innate (see Osborne 1999).

It may be difficult to convict these linguists of violating the law of parsimony, otherwise known as “Ockham’s Razor,” which tests explanations. Explanations more complicated than is necessary fail the test. The fact is we cannot know whether the rules of universal grammar are very complex or very simple; no one has ever seen them. Moreover, the contents of brains, apart from the gray and white matter and synapses that neuroscientists find there, also remain unknown and at present unknowable. I would like to suggest a simpler explanation than the one in the New York Times Magazine story of what the Nicaraguan deaf children are doing (Osborne 1999).

In the first place, born and reared to school age or later in human families, these deaf children have been interacting, although mutely, with others ever since their birth, and so they have been visibly externalizing their model of the (visible) world just as all human infants do. The difference is that, because they cannot hear, they continue to use their gestures to make their needs, wishes, and reactions known. Recently they have been brought together in schools, where the Soviet scheme of fingerspelling in Spanish to them and other well?meaning interventions by teachers has had little or no effect. However, they are now living not with hearing family members in a community of hearing people but with others deaf like themselves. Among themselves, away from their hearing teachers, they are free to continue to model their world and to communicate about it by using visible signs—learning more and more about the world from one another. Discarding their infant gestures (dismissively called “homesigns”) as soon as they see signs that seem better to them, they are continually developing their gestural communicative skills.

Their gestures naturally—not mysteriously or because of grammar rules—resemble or point at things and express actions with manual movement. For example, they sign “tell” by moving the hand from the teller to the one told. Kegl hails this as “verb agreement” and proof positive that, without any grammatical input, these children have invented grammar and language on the spot. But signing “tell” as they do is hardly a strategy requiring grammar rules, universal or otherwise. After all, these children know as we all do that telling, like a Frisbee going from thrower to catcher, is action directed from one to another.

In the constant company of others who model their world and represent their ideas in the same way, the children in the Nicaraguan schools naturally refine and improve their representations of their world. (One can acquire and improve tennis strokes by oneself against a backboard, but with a selection of opponents across the net, play becomes not only more engaging but more fluent as well and may continue to improve.) Of course, the language game is not tennis; it is the opening up and developing of the human mind. In a million years nature has found no better way to do this than through interaction with others.

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