A little more than 30 years ago, Judy Shepard-Kegl witnessed extraordinary behavior on a school playground in Managua, Nicaragua, that would spark controversy and forever influence language studies across the globe.

Deaf students who were banned from signing in the classroom were allowed to let their hands and fingers fly whenever they played together outside.

Nicaraguan education officials had invited Shepard-Kegl, a young sign-language expert, to visit the school. She had just earned her doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under famed linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky. Officials in the Central American country wanted her insight into the gestures they saw happening among hearing-impaired students. They thought it was simply mime or mimica. She would prove them wrong.

“I was seeing language. I was seeing grammar. It was very clear,” said Shepard-Kegl, 64, a world-renowned linguistics researcher and professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Her groundbreaking work, documenting the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language in the 1980s, is highlighted in a recent article in The Economist that revisits the ethical question raised by her effort to study the birth of a language without influencing it. Her observational approach continues to drive her field research in Nicaragua and Peru, and her discovery back then is still shaping the lives of her family in North Yarmouth.

Shepard-Kegl came to Maine 20 years ago to help start the university’s American Sign Language interpreting program and oversee its Signed Language Research Laboratory. It graduates eight to 10 interpreters annually as one of three nationally accredited ASL interpreter training programs in New England, and one of 17 accredited bachelor’s degree programs in the country.

Shepard-Kegl’s field research also continues to inspire the fundraising that her husband, James, a lawyer and cargo pilot, does through the Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects. The nonprofit organization helped to start and train teachers at four schools for the deaf in Nicaragua.

Now, it provides students and teachers with Nicaraguan Sign Language reading materials and grammar manuals that depict more than 1,200 signs for household items, clothing, technology, transportation, emotions, government, medical needs and many other terms.

“Judy was doing scientific research. That’s of no use if you’re not applying it,” said James Shepard-Kegl, explaining why he started the nonprofit. “We’re intervening to benefit the deaf community of Nicaragua. I hope to leave this world a little better than I found it.”

James and Judy Shepard-Kegl pose for a portrait in their North Yarmouth home while grandson Grayson Maddox plays on a couch. Judy is a University of Southern Maine linguistics professor whose groundbreaking work in documenting the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language in the 1980s continues to propel her research into the rapid evolution of languages worldwide. James, a lawyer and pilot, runs a foundation that helped to start schools for the deaf in Nicaragua and now provides training for teachers of Nicaraguan Sign Language. At far left is a portrait from the couple’s 1979 Jewish-Slovenian wedding. To its right is a portrait of c. 1920s Nicaraguan revolutionary Agusto Cesar Sandino, for whom the Sandinista rebels would later be named. STaff photo by Ben McCanna

BIRTH OF A LANGUAGE

After the Sandinista revolution in 1979, Nicaragua started to provide basic education to all citizens. The change drew long-neglected deaf children and young adults out of home isolation and into schools. For the first time, they were being taught how to read, write and speak Spanish. And while the program excluded signing, the students were meeting other deaf people for the first time. The result was inevitable.

What Shepard-Kegl saw on that playground in 1986 was a combination of rudimentary sign systems and gestures that each deaf child had developed to communicate with family members and friends at home. She quickly recognized that she was watching the spontaneous development of a whole new language – something that had never been documented before. The excitement she felt back then hasn’t faded.

“The 16-year-olds were signing fluently, and the younger kids were even more fluent,” Shepard-Kegl recalled. “These kids were creating language. I realized at that moment I needed to document what was happening as it happened.”

Shepard-Kegl continues to study Nicaraguan Sign Language, publishing her own case research last fall and shared research with former colleague Romy Spitz in the coming months. And she has expanded her research in recent years to include two separate sign languages that have developed in Peru.

In April, Shepard-Kegl and Conor McDonough Quinn, another USM linguistics professor, will travel to an international conference in Budapest, Hungary, to present their comparative analysis of American Sign Language and Algonquian languages native to the northeastern United States and Canada. They delivered a similar presentation last October at the 49th Algonquian Conference in Montreal.

Last month, Shepard-Kegl presented an overview of her research at a Princeton University seminar on the emergence of human language. She was invited by fellow linguist Christiane Fellbaum, a senior research scholar and lecturer at the university who has followed Shepard-Kegl’s work for decades.

USM linguistics professor Judy Shepard-Kegl holds a model of trachea and bronchi as she teaches an American Sign Language medical interpreting class last month at USM. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“It is wonderful to hear about Judy’s work,” Fellbaum said. “She was fortunate to witness and document how human beings created a language out of nothing. It was definitely a unique experience.”

Shepard-Kegl’s work is widely recognized for having demonstrated that human beings have an innate or natural predisposition to communicate and create language, Fellbaum said. She praised Shepard-Kegl’s scientific approach in the field, where she stringently avoids influencing the development of languages while studying them.

SOURCE OF CONTROVERSY

Not everyone has been so effusive. Some linguists and advocates for the hearing-impaired have criticized Shepard-Kegl for failing to introduce a more established sign system, such as American Sign Language, to the hearing-impaired students in Nicaragua.

A 1999 New York Times Magazine article questioned whether she was like Josef Mengele, the diabolical Nazi doctor who conducted deadly experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

“Evidently, she would rather kill the life prospects of these children, by leaving them unable to communicate with the outside world,” one academic critic suggested.

Shepard-Kegl still bristles at the idea that she was trying to create an unnatural laboratory environment to benefit her career. She defends her decision to remain a researcher – a purist of sorts – dedicated to documenting the emergence of a language without influencing it in any way.

“I didn’t want to contaminate what was already happening there,” Shepard-Kegl said. “I went in saying, ‘I will not, and no one I work with will bring another sign language to this country.’ I wanted no part of the linguistic imperialism of promoting American Sign Language worldwide. I didn’t want to interfere with the development of their culture.”

Shepard-Kegl’s respect for language and culture is rooted in her upbringing. A granddaughter of Slovenian immigrants, she grew up outside Chicago, where ethnic enclaves helped to preserve family heritage through language, food, music and other shared culture.

“I always had an interest in languages,” she said. “I grew up in a bilingual home. My family spoke English and Slovenian. When my parents weren’t around, my maternal grandmother spoke only Slovenian to me. So language was important to me very early in my life.”

By 1992, Nicaraguan Sign Language was in full force, evolving and expanding as its users interacted with other deaf and hearing people across the globe, Shepard-Kegl said. Like any language, it borrows from other languages, most recently assisted by internet communication and video chat.

Yuri Shepard-Kegl, 27, is the daughter of Judy and James Shepard-Kegl. Originally from Nicaragua, Yuri – which translates to Judy – is hearing-impaired. She learned American Sign Language when she came to the United States as a teenager in 2006, and ASL is her dominant language in her work as a social services provider. But she still uses Nicaraguan Sign Language when she speaks with friends in her home country via the web. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Shepard-Kegl’s daughter Yuri, 27, is a prime example of how the language has evolved. One of three now-grown children that Shepard-Kegl and her husband adopted in Nicaragua, she learned American Sign Language when she came to the United States as a teenager in 2006. Here, ASL is her dominant language, which she uses as a social services provider. But she still uses Nicaraguan Sign Language when she speaks with friends in her home country via the web.

“Now, everyone has cellphones,” Shepard-Kegl said. “My daughter is FaceTiming with friends in Nicaragua all the time. Adults who are deaf and have no Spanish language skills are texting with emojis. They’re right there with the rest of us, learning new language all the time. But the language is their doing.”

‘LANGUAGE HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN’

And a language that isn’t changing is dying, Shepard-Kegl often says. She’s doing her best to keep up with the ones under her watch. She and her husband traveled to Nicaragua in January 2017 to document changes in Nicaraguan Sign Language and update the grammar manual. He’s heading back there this month to distribute more manuals and reading materials.

In November, Judy Shepard-Kegl and Polly Lawson, a graduate of USM’s linguistics program, plan to travel to Peru for a yearly language conference. They’ll also further their work in developing a grammar manual for the two coexisting sign languages they’ve been studying in Peru since 2007.

Despite her far-flung itinerary, Shepard-Kegl is undaunted.

“Language has a life of its own,” she said. “It has many paths.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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