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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaraugua

"With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much"

Laura Polich

Publication Year: 2005

The sudden discovery of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) enthralled scholars worldwide who hoped to witness the evolution of a new language. But controversy erupted regarding the validity of NSL as a genuinely spontaneous language created by young children. Laura Polich’s fascinating book recounts her nine-year study of the Deaf community in Nicaragua and her findings about its formation and that of NSL in its wake. Polich crafted The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua from her copious research in Nicaragua’s National Archives, field observations of deaf pupils in 20 special education schools, polls of the teachers for deaf children about their education and knowledge of deafness, a survey of 225 deaf individuals about their backgrounds and living conditions, and interviews with the oldest members of the National Nicaraguan Association of the Deaf. Polich found that the use of a “standardized” sign language in Nicaragua did not emerge until there was a community of users meeting on a regular basis, especially beyond childhood. The adoption of NSL did not happen suddenly, but took many years and was fed by multiple influences. She also discovered the process that deaf adolescents used to attain their social agency, which gained them recognition by the larger Nicaraguan hearing society. Her book illustrates tremendous changes during the past 60 years, and the truth in one Deaf Nicaraguan’s declaration, “With sign language you can learn so much.”

Published by: Gallaudet University Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-x

IN 1912 THE supposed remains of “Piltdown Man,” an archaic fossil ancestor of modern humans, were unearthed in England. Two skulls, a jawbone, and some teeth were uncritically accepted as evidence for the evolution of modern human beings in Western Europe. The prevailing dogmas of the age undoubtedly influenced the science. It was two years before the start of World War I. Was not Europe the...

Note on Names

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p. xi

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pp. 1-12

The mid-July heat made it nearly impossible to breathe in the National Nicaraguan Association of the Deaf ’s (ANSNIC) small office without air conditioning. Because both audio and video were being recorded, it had been necessary to close the outside windows to shut out the traffic noise from the street, but the blare of television and laughter from the adjoining room meant the inside door leading to the rest of the building also had to be shut. In this oven-like...

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1. “Eternal Children”

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pp. 13-23

EXACTLY WHEN the damage to a child’s hearing occurs is often unknown. Some disease processes, such as rubella, affect the development of the ear in the fetus, and the child is born deaf. Other children are born with normal hearing, and disease or an ototoxin destroys the ear’s ability to hear later.¹ When hearing loss takes place before the child has developed any oral skills, it is usually very difficult to ascertain the...

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2. Special Education

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pp. 24-52

WHEN A DEAF person is considered an “Eternal Child,” there is no expectation that the individual will ever become an adult, in the sense of changing from a dependent member of a family to an independent actor in society at large. Because the deaf child’s access to the majority language is blocked, so too is the child’s access to education and training in the skills necessary to support oneself as an adult. But if...

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3. “Remediable Subjects”

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pp. 53-74

PRIOR TO the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, there were seven special education schools in Nicaragua, five of which accepted pupils with hearing problems.

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4. “Social Agents”

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pp. 75-99

WHEN THE National Center for Special Education, Centro Nacional de Educaci

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5. Being Deaf in Nicaragua in 1997

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pp. 100-122

IN THE UNITED STATES, which probably has the most reliable statistics, the literature on Universal Newborn Hearing Screening programs indicates that 3 children in 1,000 are born with significant hearing loss (Schow and Nerbonne 1996). In other countries, fewer reliable figures are available. In Nicaragua, for example, there are no reliable figures available at all. No census, including the last one carried out...

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6. Education and Transition to Adulthood

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pp. 123-144

OVERALL, THE EDUCATIONAL achievement of all Nicaraguans is very poor. In 1995, the general population of Nicaragua over the age of twenty-five had an average of 3.8 years of schooling, and illiteracy was estimated at 35% in 1995 (IDB 1998). The average years of schooling for persons included in the sample of the Deaf Survey was 4.8 years. Literacy could not be tested, but my personal...

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7. Adolescence, Language, and Community

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pp. 145-169

DURING THE EARLY 1980s, Nicaraguan deaf people’s behavior took a decidedly different path than it had in the previous thirty-five years. In 1979, Thomas Gibson found no deaf community in the country, but by 1986, there was a formal organization of deaf adults. Something was available during this time lapse that was not available earlier. Conversations consisting of home signs, gestures, and...

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8. Afterword

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pp. 171-172

It is another hot, dusty, August afternoon, this time a Sunday, but five years after I heard Natalia Galo’s story. Yolanda and I are out looking for the older deaf adults, the ones who remember the time before the sign language and before the Association had a house. We have an address, but we are not sure it is right, and anyway, like any Managua address, it is ambiguous. We are in Primero de Mayo, a not-so-desirable section of the capital: the streets...

Appendix: Interviewees Consulted 1994–2003

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pp. 173-176


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pp. 177-210


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pp. 211-214


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pp. 215-220

E-ISBN-13: 9781563683367
E-ISBN-10: 1563683369
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563683244
Print-ISBN-10: 1563683245

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 15 photographs
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 68211304
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaraugua

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Subject Headings

  • Deaf -- Nicaragua -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nicaraguan Sign Language.
  • Deaf -- Nicaragua -- Social conditions.
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