My Major: A Nicaraguan Story

My majors, both of them, are on the list for top ten most pointless majors. This makes sense, because we measure the worth and value of things by the "pay-out." And by that I mean the money and materialistic aspect of it. I'm not going to gripe about how you and the world should measure the value of things differently. We're living in a material world after all. But I want to value things differently, and I do.

So to me, my major (I'm talking about the English one here) isn't pointless. And here's why:

While listening to RadioLab, as I often do (and you should too), I came across this story. It takes place in Nicaragua in the 1970's.

Imagine you cannot hear. Everyone around you is constantly speaking and interacting with each other, but you can't hear them. No one has taught you sign language. So basically, you have a few crude gestures to communicate with your family, but other than that nothing. You're cut off.

Unknowingly, you are one of hundreds of kids living life this way in Nicaragua. But in the late 70's everything changed when Hope Samoza established a new school for those with special disabilities. The deaf were included in this new school. So now, instead of deaf children being scattered about everywhere, they were together. For many of these children, it was their first time meeting and interacting with another deaf person.

Ann Senghas, Associate Professor of Psychology at Barnard, described it this way: "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."

But here's the problem. NONE of these children have ever learned a language, and they all had different sets of rudimentary gestures that they used. Well, the classes didn't help much. The teachers didn't use signs and everything was said and done in Spanish. So they'd copy words and in their notebooks, but it was basically going right over their heads.

However, they were riding the bus for an hour everyday together,  playing during recess together and getting together at the park, and so on.  No one knows how, but they started to converge into a common system. In other words, they created a language.

A little over ten years later, Ann Senghas went to Nicaragua and decided to compare the original signers from ten years ago to the young current signers. She asked them to describe a certain cartoon and the differences were striking.

For one thing, the older kids used their whole bodies to sign. The cartoon character was acting eccentric, so they did too. The younger kids, however, used their hands and their wrists; it was much more "stylish."  But Senghas noticed something else. The older signers tended to describe all the events in the story. Only the events. While the younger kids would talk about the cartoon character's feelings. The kids were just better at thinking about thinking.

So, she decided to test this on all generations of deaf people in Nicaragua. She showed them a comic strip about two brothers. The big brother is playing with a train, and the little brother is watching him and wanting to play. The big brother puts it under the bed and leaves. While the big brother is gone, the little brother takes the train out and hides it in the toy box.

She then asked her participants, "Where is 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?"

When she asked the children, most of them would say, "he's gonna 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." Or something like that. That's the correct answer.

But, crazily enough, when she asked the older signers (30+ years old), they would say, "the toy box." They would pick the wrong one.

Why? This is insane. Why can't the older signers pass this test that involves thinking about what someone else is thinking?

Well, it could be that they don't have a word for it. The young signers have tons of words for thinking: believe, remember, forget, etc. The verb "think" may have somehow impacted our ability to think about other's thinking.

"Thinking about thinking. Understanding how other people understand. That's something that having language makes you better at," according to Ann Senghas.

Words can be like bridges that somehow get you to come to a new mental place that you may otherwise be cut off from. Words are beautiful. The symbols (either audibly or visually) allow us to feel and think things we could never do otherwise!

And I want to study those words. I want to combine those words in a way that creates an emotion or feeling for someone else. I want to study the way authors before me have done this.

English, or any language, isn't just some happy accident that has allowed us to communicate with one another. English is a tool that has opened up the gates of feeling, thinking, and believing.

It's awesome.

(Listen to this story here)
(Here's some more background)

1 comment:

  1. This is such a goosebumps worthy story! This was amazing thanks for sharing! :) I think English teaches empathy as well. When you read a story you become someone else, you see a new point if view, open yourself up. If there's anything this world needs it's more empathy! Which is why English is the bestest major ;) I just used incorrect English to explain oh man.