Aug 19, 2010

New Words, New World

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.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

Announcer: Listener supported WNYC Studios.

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab, our topic today.

Robert: Words.

Jad: Power of words, of language. Nicaragua, 1970s. That's where our next story starts. Are you with me?

Robert: Yes.

Jad: Imagine you're a kid that's deaf in Nicaragua at this time.

Robert: Born deaf, or?

Jad: Born deaf.

Robert: Born deaf, okay.

Jad: You've always been deaf, and you're the only one in your family that's deaf. You're in this situation where everybody's talking, their mouths are moving, you can't hear it and you don't know sign language because no one's taught you.

Robert: There was no deaf school in Nicaragua then?

Jad: Nothing, no deaf education of any kind. If you were this kid, all you really got are a couple of gestures, really crude gestures you've worked out to talk to your family and friends but beyond that, you're cut off. [music] Like Ildefonso, the guy we met at the beginning of this show. Except in Nicaragua, in the '70s, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of these Ildefonsos.

Robert: Really?

Jad: Yes. But then, everything changes.

Ann: In the late '70s Hope Simosa, who was the wife of the then-dictator established a new school for special education. I think she had someone in her family who had a disability, not deafness

Jad: But the school would include deaf people and that, says psychology professor Ann Senghas, was a first, because now instead of deaf kids scattered about, they were together,

in the same room.

Ann: There were 50 deaf kids in that first entering class.

Jad: Preschool to sixth grade.

Ann: In the late '70s.

Jad: For most of them, this was the first time they'd ever met another deaf person.

Ann: Before the world was going on around them and everyone was all talking and they were cut off from that. And suddenly for the first time, they were all there and they were

what was happening and they were what there was to talk about.

Jad: But they didn’t have a way of talking. These were fifty different kids who’d never learned a language and had fifty different sets of rudimentary gestures that they used.

Robert: Well, that must have been--

Jad: Yes, 50 people with 50 different ways to try and--

Robert: Ask for breakfast.

Jad: Or say they want to go outside. Nothing was shared.

Ann: It's not like the teachers were using signs in the classroom. Everything in the classroom was Spanish.

Jad: Which none of them knew.

Ann: Copying it into their notebooks, a lot of it was going right over their heads. [crosstalk]

Jad: At the beginning, things were completely confusing.

Ann: But, they're riding on the bus for an hour every day, and they're playing out of recess for an hour every day, and they're getting together at the park doing [crosstalk]--

Jad: No one knows how it happened. Maybe one of the kids who was--

Ann: Very charismatic.

Jad: He invented a sign for, say, ball, then told it to another kid who was--

Ann: Very, socially active. [crosstalk]

Jad: That second kid then spread the sign however, it worked. Over time, the signs that these 50 kids used--

Ann: Started to converge into a common system.

Jad: When you step back from it all, what that means--

Ann: They created a language.


They didn't just take it from somewhere else. They couldn't take it from somewhere else. They created their own.

Jad: How unusual was that?

Ann: This has happened with languages all over the world, but not while people are watching.

Jad: So, you're saying this is the first time we've been able to watch a language being born?

Ann: Yes.

Jad: Wow. For the last 20 years, that is what Ann has been doing. She's been going to Nicaragua to that school and watching.

[school bell]

Ann: Oh, you want me to describe the-- I may have gotten a recording of this but when you arrive at the school, the buses come around, the kids were all screaming and leaning out the windows and signing to each other. The kids pile out and they line up in rows on the basketball court that's in the center of the schoolyard and they all sing the national hymn. [music]

The deaf kids all sign the national hymn. They all have one hand over their heart and sign with the other hand while the hearing kids sing it and [crosstalk]--

Jad: Ann visited the school for the first time in 1990, about 10 years after it was formed. She'd been working at the time with a linguist.

Ann: Named Judy Kegel.

Jad: Studying basic linguists type stuff.

Ann: Right, trying to figure out how the verbs work and whether they have agreement with their grammatical objects and [crosstalk]--

Jad: Along the way, her and a collaborator, Kegel Pyers stumbled into something really surprising about the power of certain words. To set it up, when she got there, the first time to Nicaragua, those original 50 kids who'd invented this thing had grown up already and there were these younger generations of kids coming in behind them. Growing up with the language, using it, inventing new signs, and at a certain point, she got curious to just compare the original signers, the older kids, to the younger kids, in terms of how they signed.

Ann: We show everyone this old one-minute cartoon about this guy who's trying to fly. He sees a bird flying and he puts all these feathers on his body and climbs up to the top of a mountain, flaps his arm, and jumps, and crashes on the ground.

Jad: She showed deaf kids of different generations this cartoon and asked them pretty simply, to describe--

Ann: What they saw.

Jad: Just describe it in sign.

Ann: Describe the whole story.

Jad: The differences were striking, first of all--

Ann: I'll just show you an example of each.

Jad: So you’re opening up a movie here.

Ann: This is a first cohort you're talking about.

Jad: She got out her laptop and showed me some video, first of this woman in her 40s with dark hair and a colorful t-shirt. She was one of the original signers. When you see older signers like her, describe this guy who’s trying to fly, it's really spastic. It's almost like they become the cartoon. She’s flapping her hands. Moving all around.

Ann: A lot of full-body movements. She's talking about someone who's moving in a crazy way. She's going to be moving in a crazy way.

Jad: Then she showed me a young kid who was about eight with a backwards cap.

Ann: Here's Sylvester and now he talks about the manner.

Jad: When he described the man jumping and then falling, it was all in the wrist.

Ann: All the movement is now in the hand and it's very-- [chuckles]

Jad: Stylish.

Ann: They're trimming these signs down.

Jad: But more to the point, there was one thing she noticed that was really unexpected, it had nothing to do with movement.

Ann: I couldn't help noticing that the different people in the community talked about different things in this story. The older signers tended to describe all the events in this story.

Jad: And only the events.

Ann: The younger kids--

Jad: They would talk about the guy's feelings.

Ann: That this guy was trying to fly, wanted to fly but failed.

Jad: The kids, she says, just seem to be better at--

Ann: Thinking about-

Jad: Thinking.

Ann: -thinking.

Jad: Like other people's thinking. Ann and Jenny decided, let's take all the different generations of deaf kids.

Ann: 40-year-olds, 30-year olds, 20-year olds, 10-year olds.

Jad: Let me test them on how well they can think about thinking. What they did was they showed everybody a comic strip, different from before. This one was about two brothers.

Ann: There's a big brother who's playing with the train and then a little brother is wanting to play with the train and the big brother's playing with the train. Then the big brother puts it under the bed and goes into the kitchen to eat a sandwich.

Jad: Maybe before he goes he looks at the little brother and says, "Hey, don't touch my train." "Don't touch it."

Ann: Then, little brother, well, the big brother's out of the room, takes the train out and hides it in the toy box. Then the big brother comes back and the question is, where's the big brother going to go to find his train? Is he going to look under the bed or is he going to look in the toy box?

Robert: Well, he's going to look under the bed.

Jad: Yes.

Robert: Because as far as he knows that's where he left it.

Jad: Yes.

Ann: He didn't see it move.

Jad: If you asked kids over the age of five, most of them would say, "He's going to look under the bed because that's where he left it and he doesn't know that it's been moved to the toy box." Here's the thing, when she asks the older signers.

Ann: They would say, "Oh, he'll look in the toy box."

Jad: Really?

Ann: They would pick the wrong one. These are 35-year olds.

Jad: 35-year olds would get this wrong?

Ann: They would fail this task, yes.

Jad: Seven out of eight, she says.

Ann: Then all of the younger signers that we worked with passed.

Jad: At this point, she's just confused. Why would this be? Why can't the older people pass this simple test? It involves thinking about what someone else is thinking. What's going on here? Then it occurred to her, it might have something to do with certain words because the older signers, they don't really have that many words for the concept of--

Ann: Thinking.

Jad: They have mainly just one sign pointing at your forehead.

Ann: Yes.

Jad: Basically you just point at your forehead with your index finger. By the time you get to the younger kids, they've got tons of words for thinking.

Ann: Things like, "I know something and I know that you don't know it."

Jad: I know something and I know you do know it. They've got a sign for, understand, believe.

Ann: Believe, remember, forget.

Jad: How many roughly, were there?

Ann: 10 or 12.

Jad: Wow, from 30 years we go from just a couple to--

Ann: We went from knowing and not knowing.

Jad: -to 12.

Ann: Yes.

Jad: Somehow that makes all the difference, she says. The more of these think words you've got the more you can think. Am I right to say that? You're tiptoeing toward that. Maybe you don't want to go there all the way.

Ann: Yes. I'm trying to think that-- I guess I don't think it's so simple that you could just go in and say, "Hey, I'm going to teach you 10 signs today," and now suddenly you're going to have better cognitive capacity.

Jad: You are saying though that the verb, think, is somehow implicated in my ability to think about your thinking.


Ann: Thinking about thinking, understanding how other people understand. That's something that having language makes you better at.

Jad: There are certain words she says that don't just give you a name for something, somehow they give you access to a concept that would otherwise be really hard to get, or even talk about. It's really hard to talk about thoughts without the word thoughts. Or what is time without the word time? It's a really freaking hard concept. These words are like bridges, somehow they get you to some new mental place that otherwise you'd be cut off from. But that’s sad though these young kids have something that the people who actually invented the language don’t.

Ann: But we went back two years later, tested the same people, and then suddenly, some of them were performing a lot better than they had the two years before on the same kinds of tasks.

Jad: You mean the older signers?

Ann: Yes.

Jad: They were passing suddenly.

Ann: Some of them were passing? Yes.

Jad: What happened?

Ann: What happened in the past two years?

Jad: Yes.

Ann: Those younger kids grew up and started hanging out at the Deaf Association.

Jad: Wait, what?

Ann: What had happened in the meantime--

Jad: Here's the strange twist of the whole thing, the Deaf Association is this place where the older signers would hang out.

Ann: Yes, it’s a social club.

Jad: They'd play chess, do whatever. Well, at a certain point, these youngsters start showing up because they've graduated and they want to hang out at the Deaf Association too, but they bring with them all of their new--

Ann: Mental verbs.

Jad: All these words for thinking. They start using it with the older kids, the older kids pick it up, suddenly, these older kids are now passing the test.

Ann: There was learning that took place in adulthood that actually gives them new insight into other people's thinking and motivation and now they could pass these tasks.

Jad: That's super interesting.

Ann: That's the story. It's really cool.


Jad: Ann Senghas is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York.

Robert: The thing, of course, is you wonder once you've gotten this new facility in you, there's a lot of literature about this, My Fair Lady is about this.

Jad: My Fair Lady is about this?

Robert: Yes, it's about a woman who learns proper English and she can no longer be a flower girl in Covent Garden. She's now a lady.

Jad: Yes, I guess it is like this.

Robert: Remember, our program began with the story of Ildefonso.

Jad: Right, which we heard from Susan Schaller. Ildefonso was the guy who for 27 years had no language at all.

Robert: You wonder, what happened to Ildefonso once he got language?

Jad: After that first breakthrough where Ildefonso realize things have names, Susan ended up leaving for a few years.

Susan: Let's see, it was about four years I think, four or five.

Jad: Then she decided to write a book about him.

Susan: I went and found him again and he had language and I could ask him all kinds of questions.

Jad: Were you able to then sit down with him and ask him about his life and really get his biography?

Susan: Somewhat. One area that everyone wants to know about is what was it like to be languageless? What was going on in his head? I asked and I asked and I asked and he starts telling me that was the dark time in his life. Learning language is just like the lights went on and I tell him what we know about language and we want to know what it's like not to have language and he doesn't want to talk about it.

Robert: But there was a day, she says, when she was writing the book and she met Ildefonso in a restaurant and there he was sitting with his brother Mario, who she'd never met before and she quickly learned that Mario also was deaf.

Susan: And languageless. I was shocked and because I was so amazed, I can't believe you have a languageless brother. That's when Ildefonso said, "Well, let me introduce you to some of my friends."

Robert: So they get in the car and they drive for a while.

Susan: We stopped at this apartment, we walk into this small little room and there were these six Mexican men doing this mime routine.

Jad: Wait, all these guys were like Ildefonso used to be?

Susan: They had no language. They were all born deaf and they didn't know they were deaf.

Jad: What were they doing?

Susan: One man would stand up and he would start mining. He would just start acting out a bullfight.


He'd be the bull and he'd be charging and then he'd be the Matador and then he'd be somebody in the crowd watching and then he would add a detail.

Robert: For example.

Susan: A hat.


Robert: Then they'd swap so then another guy would get up to take over the story.

Susan: Then they'd start miming.

Robert: They'd re-enact the matador.

Susan: Describe the hat.

Robert: Now, the second storyteller would add a new detail.

Susan: Like another person with a pair of glasses or something.


Robert: Each one would stand up, take the bullfight, the same bullfight, to a different point, and add a detail?

Susan: Exactly.

Robert: Oh my God.

Susan: In other words, it would take him maybe 45 minutes to say, "Do you remember the time when we were at the bullfight and this woman did such and such?"

Jad: Wow.

Susan: It was like drawing a picture.

Robert: Let me ask you a pull-it-all-together question. I was about to think that what a language is, is a great connector, but this last story makes me wonder. These are five men really sharing and connecting on details. Is the difference that language makes just efficiency or does it affect your heart or your whole way of-- I can't tell. I'm not sure anymore.

Susan: I'll give you Ildefonso's answer. Which, when I saw him a couple of years later after this incident, I asked him about his friends. He said he couldn't talk to them anymore. He wasn't willing to go through that tedious effort of all the miming anymore. The interesting thing that he said was he can't even think that way anymore.

He said he can't think the way he used to think. When I pushed him to ask about what it was like to be languageless, the closest he ever came to any kind of an answer was exactly that. "I don't know. I don't remember."


Susan: "I think differently now."


Jad: Susan Schaller is author of the book: A Man Without Words. Go to for more info. If you go there, or if you're subscribed to our podcast, you'll get this automatically, but there is a beautiful short film directed by two really talented guys; Will Hoffman and Daniel Mercadante, that is all about words.

Speaker 5: Message seven.

Ann: Hi, this is Ann Senghas, just back from Nicaragua just in time to read in the credits. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Pat Walters. Our staff includes Ellen Horne.

Soren Wheeler: Soren Wheeler.

Brenna Farrell: Brenna Farrell.

Lulu Miller: Lulu Miller.

Tim Howard: Tim Howard.

Lynn Levy: Lynn Levy.

Ann: With help from Sharon Shattuck, Raymond [unintelligible 00:17:37],

Nicole Corey: Nicole Corey.

Sam Rouden: Sam Rouden.

Jad2: Special thanks to [unintelligible 00:17:41].

Ann: Bye-bye.

Speaker 5: End of message.

Annie McEwen: Hi, my name is Annie McEwen, I'm a producer at Radiolab. I wanted to talk about this thing we do at Radiolab because I like it. We have this thing, it's a newsletter. Big surprise, every show has a newsletter, but ours, I think, is pretty fun.

Matt Kielty: Oh, it's so fun.

Annie: Matt Kielty.

Matt: Hello.

Annie: Fellow producer at Radiolab. What is your favorite part of the newsletter?

Matt: My favorite part of the newsletter is first it's getting it and seeing it in my inbox, and then second, it's opening it, and then third [chuckles] is just hitting page down on my keyboard till I get to the very bottom of the email because you know what's at the bottom of the e-mail?

Annie: That's good. What?

Matt: You know.

Annie: Staff picks.

Matt: Staff picks, is at the bottom of the e-mail, which is like, "How great is that?"

Annie: It's great.

Matt: It's stuff that we like. Stuff we're into.

Annie: What are your favorites?

Matt: Someone of the staff picks. There was the one video where it was like 17 babies on a hamster wheel.

Annie: Really?

Matt: Or the article about the guy who ate 17 burritos.

Annie: Matt, [laughs] you're not saying real ones.

Matt: What's your favorite staff pick?

Annie: My favorite one ever?

Matt: Yes.

Annie: It's hard to say. One of my favorite ones ever was Robert talking in delightful detail about the great sausage duel of 1865.

Matt: Classic pick.

Annie: Classic. Molly's bed bug pajamas.

Matt: Oh, yes, that was a scary time.

Annie: Tracie's pasta recipe, which I did not make because I don't really cook, but I'm just proud of her.

Matt: Actually, it's really simple.

Molly: This is online. There's a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, five tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, an onion, and you cook it in a pan for 45 minutes. All right?


Matt: Thank you, Tracie. I'm telling you, everybody is loving this pasta dish.

Tracy: Oh, I do, definitely.


Matt: That woman, this guy.

Speaker 6: Sure.

Speaker 7: Oh, I think it's wonderful.

Speaker 8: Very tasty.

Speaker 9: Pasta every day.

Annie: Matt. [laughs] You're not helping. Anyway, a newsletter has cool stuff in it like staff picks and also tells you when an episode is dropping.

Matt: It's free.

Annie: It's free.

Matt: We're just going to hit. Just say like, "You should sign up."

Annie: Sign up. You can sign up in about 30 seconds at or text RLNews, as in Radiolab News to 70101. That's RLNews to 70101. Thank you.



Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.