Part 1 - Getting There. Thorny Games in Nicaragua

March had quite a surprise in store for us. Quite unpredictably, we got an invitation to visit the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects in Nicaragua. With about a week’s notice, half of Thorny Games (the Hakan part) was off to observe and help in whatever ways we could.

While developing Sign, we’ve been in close contact with Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, run by James Shepard-Kegl. James is husband to Judy Shepard-Kegl, the linguist first studied the language and NSLP is a foundation that seeks to expand sign language education throughout Nicaragua. They helped facilitate our interviews with Yuri and Sayda - two native speakers of Nicaraguan Sign Language - about their language and helped us find Nola, who is the official content consultant on our game Sign (as you may already know, all profits from Sign go to improving sign language education in Nicaragua).

We learned a lot in our trip that we’d like to share with you. In particular, just how difficult sign language access can be across many parts of the world, and how fundamentally access to language education changes lives. Also, that language access isn’t cut and dry. It’s a complex issue, and everyone responds to lack of access to language education in profoundly unique ways.

But onto this trip. Hakan was driving up from Los Angeles to San Francisco when he got this email from James. It was March 4th.


I am going to Puerto Cabezas and Waspam March 11 to March 24.  We trained the Deaf teacher in Puerto Cabezas. The existence of a Deaf community in that city is attributable to our efforts.  

This trip will be our first venture to Waspam where we will endeavor to identify the deaf children and adults there, for purposes of developing a future project.

Short notice notwithstanding, if you have an inclination to join me you are quite welcome.

 (Malaria preventive is recommended.)
— James

We’d iron out the details later, but there wasn’t much question. In about a week he’d be off to Nicaragua.

Some Background

Even though sign language in Nicaragua was non-existent forty years ago, as of 1993 ISN is federally funded to be taught in public schools. However, the budget is limited. And as you can imagine, when resources are limited, the country and ANSNIC (Asociación Nacional de Sordos de Nicaragua) that oversees much of the official sign language education in the country focuses almost exclusively on Managua and other urban centers, primarily in the most heavily developed Western coast.

The Eastern coast is a wholly different beast. Much of the population is descended from the indigenous Miskito population and it’s still commonly the first language spoken between individuals throughout the area (it was only annexed by Nicaragua in 1895, and before that it had been an automonous region following a treaty between Nicaragua and Britain. Many folks with deep roots in the Carribean speak English as a first language as well, which means it’s common to hear all three languages, Spanish, Miskito and English.

The Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects operates in parts of the country that the government doesn’t have the funds to reach. They complement official efforts by expanding education into communities on the Eastern Coast. They operated a whole school out of Bluefields for almost a decade and today provide support for bringing teachers into communities like Bilwi. Daphny, the only deaf sign language teacher in Bilwi was a student at Bluefields and now is the primary source for sign language education in the city.

 Students in Bilwi practicing the National Anthem.

Students in Bilwi practicing the National Anthem.

Waspam is even more rural, and to date has had no access to sign language education. There we would interview deaf folks who had no access to sign language to evaluate the efficacy of sending a teacher to the region and to document their home signs.

 An interview in Waspam

An interview in Waspam

With that, we hope we can share some of what we learned during our trip to Nicaragua and our deep dive into this emergent language, and how its currently being taught, maintained and developed with you all.