Research & Press

Language Development

This following information is intended to show the need for deaf children to learn through sign language in order to become successful members of their community. At Manos Unidas, we work in Nicaragua to ensure that deaf children can thrive even in countries with limited resources.

About Sign Languages

Sign languages have some similarities to and differences from spoken languages. Sign languages:

  • Are natural languages used by communities of people, and are not invented or contrived;
  • Differ from country to country;
  • Have equal expressive and communicative power as spoken languages; and
  • Must be learned early in childhood to be learned well (ideally, from birth).

Children Need Language

Sign language guarantees deaf children a language foundation that gives them access to communication, education, and the world. When deaf children have early access to sign language, they:

  • Are not language delayed,
  • Have better reading outcomes, and
  • Perform like their hearing peers on standardized tests. (Mayberry 2002)

Deafness and Spoken Language

Severely and profoundly deaf children rarely acquire spoken language successfully, even with interventions readily available in the US, such as hearing aids and intensive speech therapy. Acquiring, adjusting, and maintaining hearing aids and getting therapy is not possible for most deaf children in Nicaragua.

Sadly, many deaf children live too far from a school for special education, and cannot afford to pay for transportation to school or school supplies. They do not hear well enough to learn the Spanish spoken around them and therefore do not acquire ANY language at all, spoken or signed.

Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL)

The Manual Alphabet of Nicaraguan Sign Language
The Manual Alphabet of Nicaraguan Sign Language

In Nicaragua in the late 1970s, Nicaraguan Sign Language emerged through the interaction of deaf individuals that had access to neither spoken Spanish nor an already established sign language.

These people created their own gestures, called “homesigns”, to communicate with their friends and family, and it is out of these homesign systems that Nicaraguan Sign Language emerged. This population has proven an incredible resource for linguists like Marie Coppola, Founder and Executive Director of Manos Unidas, to better understand the human capacity for language and communication.

Today, the Nicaraguan Association of the Deaf (ANSNIC) provides avenues of interaction for its members, including through a YouTube playlist showcasing NSL.

The beneficiaries of Manos Unidas fundraising are those deaf individuals and their families who have as yet not benefited from learning Nicaraguan Sign Language (which is now one of the nation’s official languages).

Academic Publications


Mayberry, R. (2010). Early Language Acquisition and Adult Language Ability What Sign Language Reveals About the Critical Period for Language. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education (pp. 281-291). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Lillo-Martin, D. (2008). Sign Language Acquisition Studies: Past, Present And FutureSign Languages: Spinning and Unraveling the Past, Present and Future. TISLR9, Forty Five Papers and Three Posters from the 9th Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research Conference, Florianopolis, Brazil, December 2006, 239-258.


Senghas, A., Mavillapalli, S., & Roman, D. (Eds.). (2006). Simply Unique: What the Nicaraguan Deaf Community Can Teach the World. London: Leonard Cheshire International. (In Spanish. Chapter by Marie Coppola in English here.)


Senghas, R. J. (2003). New Ways to be Deaf in Nicaragua. In L. F. Monaghan (Ed.), Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities (pp. 260-282). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Press Coverage


Dr. Marie Coppola interviewed on WBEZ Radio, “Global Activism: Manos Unidas helps deaf children in Nicaragua


Dr. Marie Coppola interviewed by Jerome McDonnell on Worldview, “Global Activism: Helping the Deaf in Nicaragua