Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow
Barnard College
How a Language Was Born: Cognitive, Linguistic, and Social Factors That Led to the Creation of Nicaraguan Sign Language

Ann Senghas is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College, where she has also chaired the department and been a Tow Associate Professor. Her work examines the ways in which language users create ordered systems from disordered input and how this ability develops over the lifespan. Her research focuses on the emergence of grammatical structure in a new sign language created by deaf children and adolescents in Nicaragua over the past four decades.

As a Radcliffe Institute fellow, Senghas is considering the development she has documented in Nicaraguan Sign Language alongside other emergent systems, including home signs and village sign languages, in order to identify the universal aspects of human experience that give rise to language. This project will extend her approach from a study of individual development to interaction at the community level, drawing from sociological, historical, computational, and anthropological approaches. Through this work, she strives to capture the nature of language at its origin, and the interplay between human cognition, human social experience, and language creation.

Senghas earned her PhD in brain and cognitive sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester’s Sign Language Research Center and a research staff member at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. Senghas’s research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health since 2002. She  was a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science participant and is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. 

2014–2015 Radcliffe Institute Fellows

This information is accurate as of the fellowship year indicated for each fellow.
Photo by Tony Rinaldo