Approaching Bilwi it was clear that even the largest city on the Miskito coast was going to be a very different experience than the brief glimpses I got of Managua in my evening there.
The main purpose of this trip was to gauge the state of the deaf community in Waspam and whether or not it would make sense for NSLP to expand its efforts into the city. However, while in the area, the plan was to stop for a few days in Bilwi, where James would teach a lesson in mythology (a particularly passionate topic of his), visit Daphny (his old student who is now the primary deaf sign language educator in the city), and work on preparing for a special occasion.
The classroom for deaf students was a stand-alone building on the far side of the garden.
The class was small, but about 10-11 students attended classes daily (this was to double in the days we left after the school acquired their first school bus, allowing them to accept younger children as well).
Classes are co-taught between Adelma (a hearing teacher fluent in ISN) and Daphny (a deaf native speaker of ISN). Having one native speaker per classroom is a fundamental part of how NSLP tries to organize its instruction since students need to learn the language from native speakers rather than someone who has learned it as an adult.
Behind them, you can see Sign Writing used for instruction. It’s a fundamental part of their curriculum, which makes ISN such a unique language. ISN has been growing and thriving with a writing system in place, making its linguistic history a very unique one in the world.
The students were excitable and had a really strong connection with each other. They quickly remedied my lack of a sign name (with a swipe across the forehead to reflect my bangs - from learning many other students’ sign names, it looks like they have a tendency to assign names based on hairstyle).
For class, each took turns explaining the contents of a mythological story they were tasked with learning. As a one-room school house, the students had vastly different levels of proficiency in the language (the ages ranged from 11 to 18), but that was all part of the point. Seeing the older students express their language is just as big of a part of getting the younger students to learn as their formal instruction.
A quick aside on learning from older students. One of the common myths about the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language is that as the language was being developed, older students taught the younger students and that’s how the language evolved. If anything, oddly enough, the story is the exact opposite. Older students brought in their home signs and were the first to form vocabulary according to their needs. But as that vocabulary transferred to the younger students, it was the younger students - whose brains were still more receptive to language acquisition and development - that first imbued a grammar into it. Older students then copied the grammar the younger students has developed.
The National Anthem
The big excitement during our time though was the assembly that would take place the day we leave for Waspam. As part of this assembly, representatives for the ministry of education would be arriving for a conference at the school.
As such, the students would be performing the National Anthem before the assembly. However there are a few problems here. The ISN version of the National Anthem isn’t set in stone, it’s still something that’s being worked on and evolving. This is particularly challenging because ISN doesn’t have words for some of the concepts in the Anthem. Take the following line:
Digno (worthy) is not a word in ISN. So how do we translate this line? In ANSNIC’s official translation, they created a new sign for “digno” as it was an opportunity to define a new sign (based heavily on the spanish spelling, incorporating the finger spelling for the letter “D” in the sign itself). However, this is also antithetical to how the rest of the language emerged. Maybe it would make more sense to just rephrase the sentence into one that captured the meaning rather than attempted a word-by-word translation.
That line’s a particularly interesting one because it also contained the word “laurel”. When originally translated, this had been translated literally as a laurel tree - missing the implied connotation of the word as a mark of achievement or honor. What would the right approach there be? Try to impose the same link between the literal and figurative meaning of the word as it has in Spanish (and English), or to keep them distinct? Since ISN is still being developed at a rapid rate, small changes like this in an official ritual (especially one that is repeated so often) can have huge ripple effects on the language.
In the end, Daphny and James decided to use a sign to represent the crown of laurel as it better encapsulated the figurative imagery in the anthem. And not only that, it’s something the kids performing it would actually understand the meaning behind so they could internalize the meaning.
The two of them toiled over it after classes for days upon days (with help from Adelma who had more recently received official instruction in ISN when she learned the language during her teacher’s education). There were even a couple points where a complete fresh set of eyes was useful and I was happy to provide them.
But apart from the translation work, there were lots of other questions. Would the signed version of the anthem be performed at the same time as the sung version? James vehemently argued no and insisted it would be as absurd as singing the Spanish and English anthems at the same time during the Olympics.
Working out the anthem took days. But finally we called it quits and prepared the final version at Adelma’s house on Sunday
Apart from the ceremony itself, there was one more event. Each class would present something as part of a celebration before the assembly. For the deaf classroom, it was decided it would be a dance.
I'm not sure how a dance was decided as the best way for the students to perform as part of the assembly, but there we are (of course deafness isn’t binary - many students could still make out the beat pretty easily). In an odd but poetic twist of fate, on the day of the assembly the AV equipment actually broke down so the kids ended up performing their dance in silence. They nailed it.
We spent the rest of the days observing and documenting the kids to record their proficiency levels. One by one, we asked them to explain a picture book moving from page to page. Each of them did a great job and their success was documented. Some of the older kids had jobs in local factories, being able to provide themselves and members of their family a living. Like Daphny, it’s even possible some of these kids will go on to become teachers themselves.