An Interview on Nicaraguan Sign Language with Native Speakers

We interviewed Sayda Parrales Rocha and Yuri Shepard-Kegl on June 23rd, 2017. We were accompanied by James and Judy Shepard-Kegl, who run the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects and were among the first to document and study the language.

We conducted the interview over video chat, facilitated by a sign language interpreter. It was conducted in a mesh of spoken English and both American and Nicaraguan Sign Language. After a short introduction about Sign, we began our discussion.

Sayda attended Melanie Morales in Barrio San Judas, the public school in Managua where Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged. When Sayda enrolled, the language was already developed and thriving. She learned it natively as a student in a mixture of classroom instruction and learning from her peers.

Sayda, we understand you attended the school where Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged. What was your experience there like?

Sayda: I was very young when I first enrolled at that school. I first started learning sign language when I was four. Things like color, family… When I really got into it, I started picking it up much faster though. I would watch the older students and pick it up with my peers. It wasn’t slow at all, it happened very naturally and quickly.

At this point, James points out something about Sayda’s sign for “slow”. He mentions it’s a metaphor.

Sayda: Yea, turtle-like! Like if your connection was slow, you might say it was turtle-like.

Could you also tell us a little about your school life, Yuri?

Yuri: I started at four, the same age that Sayda did. We mainly learned through Sign writing where there would be pictures and we would change the pictures to sign language. That’s mainly how we started learning language.

Bluefields is pioneering institution in the field of Sign Writing, as Nicaraguan Sign Language is evolving, Sign Writing, the method for writing the signed language, is being developed and taught simultaneously. This is a historically unique setting where Nicaraguan Sign Language, a newly evolving language, is being born as a written language.

Yuri: At school, we would do activities like play games and learn charades. Maybe pretending you were a pirate, things like that! We would do a lot of movement while we were learning.

Bluefields was very student interactive and focused on oratory and narrative skills whereas Sayda’s was a more traditional academic program where instruction was provided in sign language.

Yuri: The school in our state was a little weird.

For people who are learning about ISN for the first time, what would you like them to know about the language? Do people have misunderstandings about it in the United States?

Yuri: It’s important for people to understand that communication is culturally important to the deaf culture, and that it’s difficult! People will often confuse it with American Sign Language and assume there’s only one language. I have to always explain that they’re different languages from different cultures.

Sayda: You have to teach the children, that’s how the language is fundamentally developed and maintained. In America, sometimes while I’m trying to sign in ASL I’ll make mistakes and people will say I’m signing wrong. Other people though will see these mistakes as part of my accent and accept them.

Yuri: Yes, some people say our hand shapes are a little off.

Do you have a sign in ISN that is your favorite?

Yuri: I really love this one!

Yuri pretends she’s standing directly behind someone facing away from her and puts her arms out as if they are sticking out from under the arms of the person in front of her and begins waving them. It’s a little like a robot, arms bent at the elbows and thrust ahead, waving up and down.

It’s a kind of duet, a game we would play together! One person would put their arms through the other person’s and start signing for them. The person in front then has to match their facial expressions to the signs. You do it at school while people are watching and it’s a wonderful time.

Oh and I know what James’ favorite sign is! It’s this!

She does a motion with her index finger and thumb, with the finger pulling back in an abbreviated “come hither” motion.

It means “missing something” or “falta” in spanish.

James: Yea, it means about twenty different things! In my dictionary I have a whole chapter on it. Is the chicken ready? No it’s not fully cooked. Do you have enough money for this? No I don’t have enough. Where’s the bus? It’s coming, it’s not yet here. You use it in so many different contexts!

Judy: My favorite is psychotherapist.

She holds out the five fingers of her left hand and snakes the index finger of her second hand through the fingers of the first.

It’s like someone snaking through your mind and thoughts! Another good one is vaccination!

Yuri signs it by signing a shot on the arm and then doing an action harkening the marching of army men.

James: Oh! It’s the soldiers!

So you’re becoming strong like a soldier?

James: Not quite! There’s this children’s book at Escuelita de Bluefields about Louis Pasteur and developing the rabies vaccine. When they show the syringe, they show the syringe magnified and there all these little French 19th century soldiers. And because they used that book so much, that became their sign, the injection of the little soldiers..

And since children who went to Bluefield (where the book was) became teachers in other communities, the sign spread. And of course nobody in those communities know where the words came from now.

What do you hope will happen with Nicaraguan Sign Language in the future?

Sayda: I don’t want it be influenced by outside factors. I don’t want a lot of finger spelling, that’s a big way in which spanish influences the language There should be more natural signs. Hearing people often don’t know the words so they try to base it off of written languages. But that’s not what it is!

Yuri: I also want Nicaragua to keep Nicaraguan Sign Language and I don’t want it influenced by ASL or other international sign languages. I want it to stay the way it is and to be passed down in the culture and community.

What is your favorite game?

Yuri: I really like games where you look at a picture and take on a character and act it out. Not like charades but similar in a way where you’re acting as a person.

Sayda: I love playing “red-light green-light” with little kids. It reminds me of how much I enjoyed it as a child.

Yuri: We also had another game where we would toss a clay ball to each other. One person would shape the ball and the other would have to guess what it was when it was thrown to them. Otherwise they would pretend the clay ball blew up. You had to do it really fast though, of else the ball would blow up!

Sayda: We would also play this game where there a skeleton and everyone would get a word that was a part of the body and everyone would have to run up and pin the word to the right part of the body!

Yea, so you make something with it and pass it and you have to guess fast or else it blows up.


Both of you had access to ISN growing up. There are still communities where that is not possible. Have you interacted much with folks who don’t have access to ISN?

Yuri: Yes, we both have worked with folks without language. I know a good deal of visual/gestural communication, so when we met I would watch them for a while to learn how they communicate. I would learn and then try to teach them ISN. Kind of like at school, I would try to teach them.

After high school, I went to the Island of Omotepe and joined a group of itinerant teachers who taught sign language to people who had no access to language. I learned their homemade sign and tried to teach them Nicaraguan Sign Language. Sometimes it would stick and sometimes it wouldn’t. We would use card and pictures. We wouldn’t use finger spelling or Spanish based outreach.

James gave us a little more context on this project. This was an outreach project by the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects. There are seven communities on this Island. A group of deaf teachers would go from community to community each week, spending a week in each one. They would be housed by a familhy with deaf children.

Each community would have 5-7 families with deaf children. Each day, the community they were in would send all of their deaf children to the house they were staying at and they would have class on the front lawn. These were language immersion classes where the kids would be introduced to Nicaraguan Sign Language. Many of these children had never seen sign language before and may have had no formal language whatsoever.

Sometimes, kids would follow teachers from community to community. The teachers would continue circling the island and revisiting communities. Six months or a year later, we would go back and do it all again. These would sometimes lead to another group or the government to introduce something more formal.

Sayda: I’ve also really enjoyed teaching individuals without language. A lot of the time, it can actually be pretty easy. You start very basically and show signs for basic concepts like water, or cow. It took time, but they would get it.

The programs Sayda were involved in were designed to evolve into more formal immersion projects where they could work with children for months or years at a time and focus more on grammatical and storytelling skills. In her programs, which spanned a single week, a smattering of vocabulary was usually all that could be done

As an example of a program that focused on narrative skills, they told me about an experience at Bluefields where they spent two months telling the story of the three little pigs. A fluent adult who was deaf would start with a picture book for the story. The teacher would tell the story best they could with a mix of sign and pantomime so the students would understand.

Then each student would take a turn telling as much of the story they could. Maybe at the beginning they could only pantomime some basic facts. With time though, they would pick up on more signs from the adult and other students. Once a teacher saw a student use the sign for a concept in the book, they would never let them revert back to pantomime.

In this fashion, they would grow into being able to tell the entire story with grammatical sign language.

Yuri: Working with the picture books was remarkable! Children grew in their understanding so rapidly.