Raise four fingers (the sign for “B”), touch your nose with your thumb and dip your hand down to mimic an elephant’s trunk. You’ve just said “Babar the elephant” in Nicaraguan Sign Language for the deaf – and it’s a sign that’s distinct from that for simply “elephant”.
It’s not surprising that ISN (for its initials in Spanish) is a language rich in children’s words, since it was children that developed it. Until the 1970s, there were no facilities or learning programmes for deaf children in Nicaragua, but with the Sandinista revolution came a new impetus to provide education for kids with special needs. Some four hundred deaf children were identified in the capital, Managua, and two schools created for them. The initiative could easily have back-fired, as teachers were brought from Europe who tried to teach Spanish using fingerspelling, which the kids couldn’t grasp because they’d never learned Spanish at home. Instead, each had their own signs used within their families, and in the classroom, the playground and the school bus they began to share them, eventually turning impromptu communication into a common language.