The science behind how you’ve got skills to grow programmed right in your DNA.
What would happen if a group of children was left on an island without adult supervision? Would they find a way to communicate with each other and create their own fluent language?
Of course, such an experiment is too cruel to conduct. But something similar happened in the Central American nation of Nicaragua.
In the 1980s, a group of deaf children ranging in age from 4 to 16 was raised together at the Melania Morales Special Education Center. Having had no prior exposure to sign language, these children found ways to communicate with each other using their hands. They copied each other’s gestures and expanded their repertoires as a common vocabulary began to develop among them.
When the teachers discovered how effective this form of communication was, a group of linguists studied the phenomenon. What they found baffled the entire world: the deaf children had developed a fully-functional language, complete with unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
The youngest language in the world was born: the Nicaraguan Sign Language.
What can this unique phenomenon teach us about ourselves? This article explores the science behind this question.
Refuting the Blank Slate Theory
Scientists have long-since argued that the mind is completely blank at birth. From there, external factors like education, environment, and experiences shape a child’s development. In other words, what kids learn from the world leaves a lasting effect on who they become.
Ann Senghas of Columbia University has studied the Nicaraguan sign language evolution each year since 1990. Her team found that the children constructed individual words and expressions first. Then, these bits and pieces were joined to form coherent sentences. The presence of a large number of deaf children also helped speed up the process and include generalizations.
- The older children supplied old gestures from home and new gestures they came up with at school in order to create the beginnings of a lexicon.
- When the young children observed anything that appeared to be a reoccurring pattern, they assumed this pattern was a rule. These children then applied this rule to similar circumstances.
- The young children became the language role models for the teenagers as they began copying each other and a feedback loop was established.
- The young children did not have to adapt their generalizations to fit the language model around them. Instead, those generalizations became the prototype.
This led to the conclusion that children naturally possess learning abilities capable of giving a language its fundamental structure. Prior to this, it was believed that language needs to be learned, not created, which makes the study revolutionary in its own right.
“It’s a dramatic demonstration of how un-learned this whole thing is,” says Lila Gleitman, a professor emerita of psychology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, she is referring to the learning process by breaking a language down to the simplest words and grammar rules and memorizing by repetition and feedback.
After this surprising discovery of a new language, scientists have started wondering whether this ability to break concepts into parts is specific to language, or whether it might be part of a wider ability that could be applied to other learning tasks.
How This Applies to You
Much research needs to be done on the learning and cognitive abilities of the human brain. But if you look at it from a non-linguistic point of view: how capable are our brains of learning a new skill by breaking it down to its smallest elements?
Of course, I’m not a linguist or an expert in how the human brain works. But the way the new language evolved amid the deaf children inspired me. It made me think that our brains might be capable of more than what we give them credit for.
Often, we seek solace in excuses like, “This wasn’t covered in my university education,” or “I’m not qualified enough to do that.” But really, how accurate are those? Maybe we don’t need someone else’s stamp of approval on our resumes to actually go ahead and do things.
Maybe a college degree or certification are just embellishments — trophies we gather on our journey that hardly determine our worth. As we can learn from the deaf children of Nicaragua, only experience, grit, and determination should decide the things we can accomplish, not the opportunities handed out to us on a plate. They’re a great example of what’s possible when you’re not captured by certain beliefs of what’s possible.
The deaf children of Nicaragua didn’t go about aiming to form a new language. They were in an environment that left them with no means to communicate with each other. It was an invention born out of necessity — a means to an end rather than something with a grander intention.
This throws light on the fact that when it’s absolutely necessary, we are capable of doing just about anything. Only when there’s an alternative, do we seek comfort in it.
As I’d written in a previous article, giving up isn’t imprinted in your DNA. Once you set your mind on a goal, you’re capable of great things. You just have to let go of all the limiting beliefs that might be holding you back.
If a group of deaf children can build a whole new language from scratch, surely, you can get off your ass and achieve that goal you’d been postponing for so long.
If there’s one thing you should take away from this anecdote it’s the following:
“Our need will be the real creator.”
— Plato, Republic
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