Part 3 - Waspam and the Search. Thorny Games in Nicaragua

After our few days with the students in Bilwi, it was off to our final destination: Waspam. Daphny, James, Nola and I would meet up there, but travel separately. Nola and I would take a five hour bus ride to get there. I would have taken a picture of the bus if I could, but I was packed so tightly that I could not physically lift my arms to raise my phone. At any rate though, after a grueling bus ride we arrived at our second location.

Squarely on the River Coco, Waspam was much smaller than Bilwi. Basically a single main dirt road right on the side of the river about 20-30 shops long, fed into by smaller tributaries of housing.

Now, the plan in Waspam is to meet as many deaf individuals as possible who previously have not had access to sign language education. If there are enough of a certain age, or an established community or network, it may be a strong contender for funding a teacher into the community.

Alternatively, if young enough children are found who might be good candidates, it may be possible to arrange host families in a town like BIlwi where they can stay to learn sign language. Even if they can only spend a year or two learning, the process of learning language, any language, awakens parts of our brain that affect our development immensely. Even a basic exposure to language education in this way can be life changing, and unlock a child’s ability to form more complex methods of home signing with their family and friends, even if it’s not through official ISN.

When we got to Waspam, the plan was to go to the hospital in the morning to get a list of deaf individuals from a list they had. Unfortunately, such records were only kept for adults who had previously sought health services. We’d follow their leads, but also ask around the town.

Language Deprivation

What does it mean to be deprived of language? Essentially it's when a young person has no means to learn language during their most formative years. The most common way in which language deprivation happens in the modern world is when a deaf individual, born to hearing parents (as 90%+ of deaf individuals are) doesn't get access to sign language education at an early enough age, usually due to lack of educational access or knowledge on behalf of the parents.

A human brain that doesn't have access to language at a young age will develop differently. First of all, it will greatly reduce their ability to actually learn language later on, even with qualified teachers (they will only be able to process the language as strictly visual input rather than processing it with the pieces of the human brain that usually develop hard-wired for language). Second, without access to social communication, language deprivation can severely hinder how one views the world, impeding a "Theory of Mind" (in other words, that others have their own mental states and don't just share the same feelings and perspectives that they have - see this article for a review on linguistic deprivation and its consequences).

Optimally, language acquisition starts very young, and the period until age 5 is usually called the critical period. But one thing that sometimes gets lost while reading about this phenomena is just how variable a thing language proficiency is. It's not a switch. Just because someone doesn't have access to sign language doesn't mean they'll show all of these symptoms. There are so many variables.

Grace, the Pastor’s Daughter

Surprisingly finding folks to interview was remarkably easy. The first night we were there, James asked a woman working at the pizza place where we were eating (power had gone out for the entire town, and it was the only place to eat with a generator) if she knew any deaf individuals.

“The pastor’s daughter, for one” she replied. So it was decided, we had our first interview for the morning.

It was a ways down a single dirt road when we got to their house. We were escorted by her brother in-law. After arriving, we met Grace (not her real name, but let’s stick with it).

Now, before meeting Grace my main exposure to language deprived adults had been through documentaries such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjtioIFuNf8&t=2s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGzIcqY1yVM ). Now what was amazing about Grace was, despite the fact that she had never had any official language learning experience, she was extremely capable and adaptable. She still was mainly reserved to her house, but there she raised two children (who both where there when we arrived) and made crafts that could be sold at the local market to help support her family. She was outgoing, smiled and with the help of her brother-in-law through home signs they had, was able to communicate pretty well with our group (Daphny did the majority of the communication, being both deaf and Nica).

We gave her a list of items that we asked her to identify for us. Stuff like a picture of an apple, a pig, a washing machine. One by one, she signed them as she would to her family - generally pantomimed gestures, but they were quick and unambiguous. If she wanted to communicate something she needed, or something she had seen, she was able to do it and know when it had been communicated. At the time, this didn’t even register as being exceptional, but trust me, it will in a moment.

Of all the folks we interviewed, Grace was an extreme. Highly developed home signs, able to perform fairly complex tasks to earn a living (while she couldn’t do arithmetic, she could recognize numbers that appeared on her sewing equipment). She laughed with us, and even tried to give me one of her bowls made of pine-needles as gifts while we were leaving (I have it in my office now, though I insisted on paying her for it).

Over the day, we would interview at least six more people. Finding deaf individuals was very easy, both through the health records and simply asking on the street. By the end, I was able to appreciate though, just how exceptional Grace’s life was.

Sofia

One of the next folks we interviewed was Sofia, a young woman in her twenties. She lived in the small apartment behind a stall which her family operated. When we came, she was watching television and the rest of her family was away. It was quickly apparent that we had found Sofia, but had to wait for the rest of her family to come back before we could attempt any communication and to get her permission to be interviewed.

Sofia could handle basic transactions at the stall, and was trusted to stay there for short periods of time while her family was out, but it quickly became apparent that her ability to do so was pretty limited. She could only sell the sodas they had in the cooler, and only for exact change. For any other transaction, she would motion that the customer needed to wait until someone else returned.

 Part of Sofia's stall - it was shared by a few businesses.

Part of Sofia's stall - it was shared by a few businesses.

Once her mother returned, we got permission from Sofia and her mother to ask her a few questions. Until this point it wasn’t completely clear to me just how limited her ability to communicate was.

Daphny held out the book of pictures to Sophia and asked her to sign the pictures she could in any way she could. She did a few examples to illustrate what she meant. Sophia nodded and Daphny pointed to the first picture, an apple.

Sophia raised a couple of fingers to her mouth to indicate food.

The came sandwich.

Same thing, food.

And pig. Same thing.

Daphny repeatedly would indicate that she was looking for more and mime the item being pointed to. Sophia would nod that she understood and mimic Daphny's improvised sign for that item, but quickly regress back to not being able to distinguish between a huge variety of items.

There was no distinction between a huge number of Sophia’s signs, what she couldn’t point to, she made a few motions that would indicate how one would interact with the object but that was it. Unfortunately, that was the extent of her ability to communicate, and by all accounts I heard from James afterwards, the critical points in her development had already been closed off. If intervention happens for a child when they're in that critical period, they will still be able to develop full language competency. After that, there's still a period of time in which they'll be able to develop a pretty large vocabulary and improve their station in life dramatically - this period seems to be until age 17 or so. Following that age, all accounts are that it is extremely hard to acquire a first language.

So what made Grace and Sofia so different? Of course, it's impossible to say for sure, but the folks there had a few theories. Certainly from a prominent family where many of the members were literate and likely had time to care for Grace, even if she never had exposure to sign language, may have made a big difference. But one factor that was most striking to us was that Grace had a sister about her age. From the brother-in-law, we heard that they were very close and spent much of their childhood together. Having someone close to connect to, the theory goes, may help someone form many of these social communication cues in their brain, even if they lack access to a formal language.

Final Notes

Access to sign language education is a core part of community. It's a vital service that allows so many individuals to live full lives, and it's something that often goes unnoticed.

It's easy to think of it similar to literacy, a vital part of education - but it's way more fundamental. It's a first language. It's what allows the brain to develop and make social connections.

Everyone's story with language is unique, and my time in Waspam definitely drove that home. But seeing the difference between the kids in Bilwi and those in Waspam was stark. Even with a single room, they're given a lease and an opportunity to live a full life. But they're also have their connections with each other. The most fundamental thing that language provides us all.