Birth Of A Language

Children Without Language

In the 1980s, to be deaf in Nicaragua was to be lost. Deaf children were "shut in" or sent to schools for the mentally retarded. But one group of deaf children overcame these obstacles in an astounding way. Scott Pelley reports on them, and the dedicated scientist who is studying and helping them.


Not one of the children had ever seen a sign language. But within months of being brought together they had written one of their own.

No one had ever put together a successful program to educate the deaf children of Nicaragua. In 1979, after the Sandinista revolution, the government set up two schools in Managua and brought in deaf kids from all around the country. But the kids had never been exposed to language in their lives, so they couldn't understand what the teachers were saying and the teachers couldn't understand them.

Then, something extraordinary happened. The children began comparing the signs that they had been using at home, and added to them and modified them. Soon, even though the teachers still didn't know what was going on, the children were talking to each other in a new language.

Mystified, the Nicaraguans called in Judy Kegl, an American linguist who studies language and the brain.

As Kegl recorded their conversations she began to understand that this was no jumble of gestures, but a true language with precise rules and order. They did it on their own.

Kegl believes their case proves that the brain has an instinct for communication.

"It's like a rocket going off in your head," says Adrian Perez, one of the children liberated by the invented language. "It's just an understanding that soars."

Today Perez teaches the new language, known simply as Nicaraguan Sign Language. He lost his hearing to a fever when he was a toddler. He was born into a happy family, but as a deaf boy in Nicaragua, he couldn't share in their happiness.

"You can't express your feelings," he says of being without language. "Your thoughts may be there but you can't get them out. And you can't get new thoughts in."

Kegl wondered if she could find other Nicaraguans trapped without language. She's an authority on how the brain creates language. If she could find people who had not been reached by the new sign language - people with no language, she might learn about how language evolved in the first place.

Kegl thought that her work in Nicaragua would last a few weeks. That was 15 years ago. Today she is still traveling the rain forests of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast finding what no linguist believed could ever be found - humans without language.

Kegl's research suggests the brain is open to language until the age of 12 or 13, then the opportunity begins to close. So far, Kegl has found about 300 people who have missed this window. They are invaluable to research - among the only people on Earth who can provide clues to the beginnings of human communication.

But over time Kel couldn't get over the tragedy of these people. Five years ago, Kegl decided to start teaching as well as studying. She and her husband James started a one room school on the Mosquito Coast to teach the new sign language. He gave up a career as a pilot. Now they run the school, solely on donations. They call it the Esqualita, which means "little school" in Spanish.

"When I was little, I would look at books in my house," signs Daphne Rodriguez, one of 30 students in the school. "I would look at them but I didn't know what they said."

Now, with language, the students are filled with questions, and they have the tools to ask them.

"I'm convinced that language is in the brain," Kegl says. "But I'm also convinced that language needs a trigger."

The Kegls go to great lengths to keep their students in school. Sometimes they have to find kids who are missing because of hunger or disease. Sometimes parents and grandparents keep children out of school because they want them to work.

Today, Nicaraguan sign language is spreading farther. And, like any language it's taken on a life of its own - adding new words all the time. Recently, after taking a field trip to the beach, the students came up with a new gesture to represent sand.