Lynn Hou

The National Science Foundation awarded a $15,107 grant to linguistics graduate student Lynn Hou to be used to research the emergence of a new signed language in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. 

Hou was visiting a colleague’s home villages, sister communities San Juan Quiahije and Cieneguilla, when she noticed an abnormality in the communication of deaf people there.

“I was impressed by how they had their own signs that did not appear to be related to Mexican Sign Language … and how they could communicate with hearing people of varying degrees of fluency,” Hou said in an email. “I wanted to learn more about the lives of the deaf people in San Juan and Cien.”

It was there that Hou realized it was an emerging new language, which has been unofficially named Chatino Sign Language by Hou and her colleagues. 

“We have a natural situation, something that could not be replicated in a laboratory setting, where the children are acquiring a young language and are most likely contributing to the structure of the language by creating more new signs,” Hou said. 

Hou plans to use the research money to return to Cien and San Juan and observe the interactions between 10 deaf children and members of their communities for nine to 12 months.

Richard Meier, head of the linguistics department and Hou’s dissertation advisor, said he believed that because Hou is a deaf researcher, she will be particularly aware of the subtle nuances of signs and gestures of the deaf people of Oaxaca.

“[Hou and research colleague Kate Mesh] have been able to trace certain signs for negation in Chatino Sign Language to the gestures that are widely used by deaf and hearing people in this part of Mexico,” Meier said. “They also have evidence that the use of these gestures becomes more systematized in Chatino Sign Language.”

Biology sophomore Jessica Bolen,  who is minoring in linguistics, said part of the draw to studying emerging languages is because these new languages often appear in cultures and places most would never expect.

“Most, if not all, of the teachers I have do their research on things like this — emerging languages that show it’s a huge cultural impact and something people will always be studying and learning from,” Bolen said.