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New Words, New World

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Post It Up (Gui.Tavares/flickr)

In the late 1970s, a new language was born. And Ann Senghas, Associate Professor of Psychology at Barnard, has spent the last 30 years helping to decode it. In 1978, 50 deaf children entered a newly formed school--a school in which the teachers (who didn't sign) taught in Spanish. No one knows exactly how it happened, but in the next few years--on school buses and in the playground--these kids invented a set of common words and grammar that opened up a whole new way of communicating, and even thinking.


Ann Senghas

Comments [19]

Alexander Covan from NJ

The similarities with the autism (mentioned by Greg from DC) where a real lightbulb moment when I listened to the program last night. If autism researchers are not already aware of this significant similarity (and it was interesting that nobody noted it during the show)... Someone should follow up with that community. It could be of major significance.

Sep. 26 2017 10:50 AM
Jeff L from Alexandria, VA

Some animals, birds, insects do have language so what level of language draws the line to reach the six year old "ah moment of connection"-relating back to the original story line of the mouse and the blue wall/6yr olds. Or why or has these non-human languages evolved along the same hypothesis between the older and younger generation of mute students.

Again I wish radio lab would do a follow-up investigation on this line of thinking.

Jul. 21 2014 04:11 PM
herb schreier md from Berkeley California

When the story started I thought you were going to discuss the original finding that these kids created their own language that included grammar, and the effect of this finding on the Chomsky transformational grammar [innate grammar] vs those who believe that there is no innate grammar. I remember reading the first reports which seem to indicate that the language developed suggested an innate grammar--due to the sophistication of their words. It is now interesting to hear that theory of the mind something that appears innate but does NOT emerge in children until they are in their fifth year did not emerge in the first group of deaf children in Nicaragua. I would appreciate if anybody can shed some light on these two issues. VERY nicely done show.

Jul. 19 2014 07:30 PM
Rich from Virginia

I like the interjections. Especially good for listening while driving. It reminds me of Godard's innovation of the jump cut in French cinema. Good Stuff. Ignore the haters!

Jul. 16 2014 05:41 PM

The whole approach how languages was born is impaired in this report.The speakers forgot the fact that they are not deaf, and people (non-deaf) are communicating with words (linguistic is an artificially invented coding system based on alphabets) and today's languages took centuries to develop. Bottom line, experiences throughout sensory perception create thoughts which would manifest in sounds then coded in words. Deaf people are going through the same process except the final step which is sound then coding into words. Visuals ( images, colors, music, drawings, dance etc) are easy to process and understand for the human brain, therefore mixing sign language with pictures would help to increase the "vocabulary" of expression for deaf kids.

May. 06 2014 09:37 PM
Tyrone Giordano

Transcript, please! I think I deserve to know what is being said as a Deaf person and an ASL user. Thanks.

Aug. 19 2013 04:22 AM
mwmontauk from Indianapolis

What about Deaf people who are interested in this podcast?
Any way they can read the transcript or get a closed captioning?

Thank you!

May. 27 2013 08:24 PM

I agree with the others. Please leave out the fancy editing of your sentences intermingling. It's very jarring to the senses and not necessary

May. 20 2013 01:38 AM
cgfb nsjuk from delawere

you suck dick, and costco can send me a box-o-dix

Feb. 19 2013 11:25 AM

This is your show and you want to talk and I get that. But seriously, it is horrible. She is a perfectly fine story teller. It's terrible to have you jumping in randomly and taking sound clips of her to complete your sentences. We want to hear her. Not you. We can think for ourselves.

Jan. 28 2013 03:28 PM
xian from Seattle

Do the videos (of the children signing) that are discussed in this section of the episode online somewhere? I'd like to view them.

Mar. 09 2012 06:21 PM
Ashley from New Jersey

This blog shows the evolution of language. It captures the essence of memoir because it describes character, and connection. I could say that this is written in associative structure. It is a very inspirational piece.

Dec. 20 2011 12:39 AM
Jacqueline from NY

hello im writing a research paper in sociology and i need to MLA cite this podcast. any idea of when Words was published, and under what company? Thanks

Oct. 02 2011 02:04 PM

Hey Rachel, we do have a transcript of this episode. Head to the episode page (here:, and click on the transcript button in the audio player.

Jun. 22 2011 04:56 PM

I wish this edition was available with a transcript. I work at a Deaf residential school and would love to know my colleagues' perspective on this episode.

Jun. 22 2011 04:01 PM

Wow, that back and forth between Ann Senghas talking and your commentary is very annoying.

Feb. 09 2011 10:14 AM
Harold Gregory from oklahoma

I can just imagine all the deaf people coming here to see what is happening .

Are there transcripts for them ?

Nov. 28 2010 04:57 PM

The question I had was if these kids & adults never learned to read? Considering their circumstances, I was guessing that they couldn't, otherwise I might assume that they could become familiar with concepts about the minds of others through the written word if not person-to-person communication. It's just something that was never mentioned in the piece.

Aug. 14 2010 03:34 PM
Greg from D.C.

The inability of the older generation of deaf kids to say where truck was is interestingly the same sort of answering process observed in autistic children. They also have a basic inabilty to form an idea of the mental state of others. This is a very basic human element, and one found in Great Apes, and chimpanzees too. Obviously humans have this capacity, but in both the deaf-and-untrained-in-language and autistic kids, it has been precluded in some way. This structural difference in autistic kids and the developmental difference in languageless deaf kids could hopfully be explored further and used to treat autism one day.

Aug. 11 2010 02:17 PM

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