Fifty years ago in parts of Central and South America, being a deaf child was almost unimaginably isolating. Deaf kids were usually kept at home, unable to communicate with anyone other than their immediate families. Schools offered no supplemental support, and sign language instruction was very rare. Their worlds were unendingly quiet, and often terribly lonely.
Schools for the deaf were established in the 1930s in Venezuela, and in the 1980s in Nicaragua. In each case, something remarkable happened. Kids created an entirely new language.
In Venezuela, trained teachers instructed kids in American and Spanish sign languages (ASL and LSE). But for dozens of kids gathered in the same place for the first time, starved for communication, the methodical classroom lessons were just too slow.
Outside the classroom, they spontaneously, independently developed a completely new sign language. Isolated with their families, most kids had invented their own signs for particular objects or actions. But as a group, they seemed to agree organically on a single sign and begin using that one exclusively. They invented Venezuelan Sign Language, still spoken today by as many 50,000 people.
Fifty years later and a thousand miles away in Nicaragua, a very similar pattern played out.
The goal in Nicaragua’s first school for the deaf wasn’t to teach sign at all, but teach kids to read lips and vocalize responses, so they could participate in ‘hearing’ society. There was no instruction in sign or gesture at all.
But just like the Venezuelan experiment, kids created a brand new sign language. On playgrounds, in hallways, and completely outside what adults had decided kids “should” learn, students ignored the instruction and created a faster, more efficient language of their very own. Kids created massive vocabularies, independently and voluntarily, and memorized them out of excitement to finally be able to communicate and make friends. They developed never-before-seen complex grammars.
Though all ages learned together, kids four to six were the leaders in creating the language. Older kids created vocabulary but younger kids connected those discreet signs with intuitive grammars. For the same reason your kid might say, “sheeps” or “runned,” these young deaf children absorbed what they were seeing and simply “learned” the rules of a language that had never existed before.
“A lot of those older kids weren’t generating grammar the way little kids did. They copied the grammar the little kids generated,” says Judy Shepard-Kegl, a linguist who was invited by the Nicaraguan government to observe (and film!) the emergence of this new language. By the time she arrived, teachers were at a complete loss to follow students’ conversations.
“When children learn a language, they don’t just passively absorb words,” said The World in a write-up of Shepard-Kegl’s work. “They actively interpret the language, looking for patterns, and favoring the ones that occur most frequently. In this way, children drive the way a language develops.”
These groups of kids, taken from home and thrown together, wrote a sort of antithesis of the Lord of the Flies narrative. Left to their own devices, children eagerly organized themselves, tested solutions, built community, and created something entirely new and highly functional.
They learned something that definitionally couldn’t have been taught. They created new knowledge through play.
This demonstrates what we already know: that kids learn and create through play, through exploration of their own curiosity, imitation of others, trial and error, and feedback from peers.
What a kid can’t wait to learn, they don’t really need to be taught. Adults’ view of what should be learned is tangential (often they ‘learn’ how to get around us).
Deaf kids who’d never been to school, nor communicated with peers, were thought to be “behind” educationally. The skills gap was massive. But brought together in a school, they seized on the space to figure something out. And they did, with remarkable speed and capability.
Venezuela and Nicaraguan students did far more language learning in the hours they were left alone than the hours they were forced to sit for instruction. And these kids aren’t outliers in that – just a poignant example.
Kids are naturally eager to learn and grow their abilities, and can often do that more successfully without constant coaching or correction from adults.
Give your kid the same kind of space. It isn’t easy, as a parent or a teacher, to step back when kids are struggling with a new problem, or when we fear they might be “behind” in a certain skill. We want to support, to fix, to impose our ideas of what would be helpful. And the incentive structures of traditional schools make it even harder for teachers and parents to take a hands-off approach.
When your toddler stumbles or your teen is facing social strife, instead of rushing in with a solution, take a step back. We can give kids much freer, less-structured environments in which to learn that most of us were taught was possible. Kids are hungry for knowledge – we don’t need to force it on them.