Travels with the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects

March had quite a surprise in store for us. Quite unpredictably, we got an invitation to visit the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects (NSLP). 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 NSLP, 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.)”

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

  • Observe and help with documentation of a school for the deaf that they had setup in Bilwi (aka Puerto Cabezas, one of the larger towns on the Miskito coast of Nicaragua)
  • Help evaluate the state of the deaf community in Waspam, a much smaller town on the River Coco where there currently isn’t any access to sign language education.

In the process, we learned a lot about the current state of this emergent language that we’d like to share with you. In addition, the trip to Waspam was eye opening. Language is a fundamental part of being human. In Waspam we met with multiple language deprived adults and learned their stories. 

While developing Sign, we’ve been in close contact with the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects. Run by James Shepard-Kegl (husband of Judy Shepard-Kegl, the linguist first studied the language), NSLP is a foundation that seeks to expand sign language education throughout Nicaragua. They allowed us to interview Yuri (their adopted daughter, who is a native ISN speaker) and Sayda (who attended one of the two schools that gave birth to ISN while the language is being developed). They also introduced us to Nola, who has been living and teaching Nicaraguan Sign Language for decades, and who is the official sensitivity consultant for the game.

But still, the email we got was a shock. I was driving up from Los Angeles to San Francisco when I got it. It was March 4th and I had stopped to get gas in some remote station along dusty Interstate 5.


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.)”

It was a shock, not only because we didn’t anticipate the opportunity but also because the invitation was in a week! I quickly called Kate and figured out the specifics and pondered on the drive back home. But honestly there was little question.

Even though sign language education 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.

So how does Sign Language education work in rural Nicaragua? And what of all those individuals who don’t have access? Back in 1997 it was estimated that of approximately 600,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals in Nicaragua only 3,000 knew sign language. That’s improved a lot, but the vast majority of the country is far away from any urban center or access to sign language.

The stay in Managua was brief, enough to see some sights for an afternoon and visit some museums. Learning the history of Nicaragua can’t help but leave one dismayed about the United States’ role in Central America over the years. Even setting Reagan and the Contras aside, the history goes much deeper. For instance, there’s William Walker, a self-proclaimed adventurer from Tennessee who along with 55 Americans and funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt took over the country and declared himself president (recognized as legitimate by the US at the time).

At any rate, the real destination for this trip was the Miskito coast, so after a day it was off on a plane to Bilwi (which is the Miskito name for Puerto Cabezas). To date, it was the smallest airplane I had ever been on. That wasn’t a title it was long to hold.

Bilwi and the National Anthem

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.

Arriving at Bilwi, I met up with James and to my surprise, Nola! We had been working together and she had done a full round of feedback on Sign earlier in the year, so it was an unexpected pleasure to get to meet her in person.

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.

(Daphne and a student during class)

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.

Overall, the good news was that I only spent one day flat on my back with, what I assume was food poisoning. Daphny when visiting was kind enough to give me something she assured me would make me feel better, tea from the leaf of an orange tree.

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:

“¡qué el trabajo es tu digno laurel y el honor es tu enseña triunfal!” (for work is thy well earned laurel and honor is thy triumphal emblem!)

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 under the watchful eyes of Polly and Paco.


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.

Now I don’t know how or why 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 and rhythm of the music when played loudly enough). 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.

Waspam and the Search

After our few days with the students, 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 (though nothing comparing to the bus ride to Managua from Bilwi, which is 19 hours on dirt roads), 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 feeding in.

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.

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. 

Grace, the Pastor’s Daughter

“The pastor’s daughter, for one” she replied. So it was decided, the pastor’s daughter would be our first interview in 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 and ). 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.

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.


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.

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, even with her family.

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.

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.