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American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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subject. Of the numerous examples, two come immediately to mind. One of them concerns a vocabulary lesson being taught by an unnamed colleague. The lesson included the designation “marrons rôtis/roasted chestnuts.” Bébian, who was in attendance, realized that the signs used to represent the chestnuts did not allow students to understand what they were. To prove his point, he sent out for some roasted chestnuts. Students had no idea that what had been put before them was the item they had just signed. In effect, the signs used had led them to imagine the process, something roasting on a spit such as a cut of veal, rather than the end product. Another incident grew out of the definition of “espèce/species.” According to the signed definition presented to the students, Bébian pointed out to another unnamed colleague, the term could also be applied to an individual, Laurent Clerc, for example. Bébian was right, of course, but the colleague, believing he had been upstaged in front of his students, stammered on in defense of his interpretation. As much as these anecdotes illustrate Bébian’s acumen, they also serve to explain, unwittingly perhaps, why the administration and certain colleagues may have found his conduct irritating.

Bébian’s students, on the other hand, reacted quite differently, according to Berthier. He is unsparing in his praise: “I do hope the reader will forgive me for this exuberant expression of gratitude for all Bébian did for us,” but, “before [his] arrival on the scene, our anemic imaginations, which recoiled at the slightest difficulty, rejected with horror the simplistic children’s books that came into our possession.” Bébian fostered the confidence and provided the means to tackle the most difficult writers, Berthier explains. As for writing, Bébian’s role was no less instrumental and effective: “We wrote without understanding what we were writing. We could hardly write a single line correctly; our minds were ajumble with unrelated sentences encountered helter-skelter; we wrote them endlessly: loose-ended scribblings with nothing to link them, much like a parrot perched on a windowsill and repeating the words of passersby without understanding them.” Although Berthier does not say so in so many words, it is clear that he posits as the ultimate proof of Bébian’s success the sophistication and intelligence of his own writings.

It would be naïve to think that Berthier’s glowing view of his mentor was shared by all students. Group dynamics are rarely so harmonious, especially when they involve young children and adolescents. Any contrary evidence is omitted from the text, however. It is also noteworthy that the claim of objectivity contained in the introductory pages of the later biographies devoted to l’Epée and Sicard is not to be found in the Bébian text. Panegyric and manifesto merge here: a change of administration at the school and the chance to promote mimicry and undermine support for articulated speech played an overriding role in the timing and the tenor of the work.

Bébian’s career as educator and theorist did not come to an end when he left the institute. He was still a young man, no more than thirty-one at the time, and neither his ambition nor his determination had diminished. He had already published an essay on the natural language of deaf people (1817) and another title, the prizewinning In Praise of the Abbé de l’Epée, commissioned by the Academic Society of Sciences of Paris (1819). Among the many treatises and manuals he would publish over the years, it is curious that Berthier does not mention specifically an 1825 title: Mimographie ou essai d’écriture mimique, propre à régulariser le langage des sourd-muets (Mimography, or a Proposed Gestural Writing Appropriate for Standardizing Deaf Language). He does refer to an in-house “mimographic dictionary” and its intrinsic value, as the following quotation reveals:

[It] was as useful to teachers as it was to students. Both could find in it the natural signs for ideas and their meanings, just as schoolchildren could find in a usual dictionary the Latin or Greek words next to their French counterparts. Hence even the beginning deaf students could learn in eight or ten days to form their thoughts on paper without having to take the preliminary step of translating into another language.
The forty-seven-page in octavo Mimography monograph (published by Louis Colas in Paris) made available to the public a nuts-and-bolts presentation of the “natural language of the deaf ” as Bébian conceived it. The introduction contains the acknowledgment that “it is not any easier to describe gestures in words than it is to depict words with gestures” and that he needed to devise an extraordinary means of representation to that end. His solution was, with the aid of images, to translate each movement systematically into specific characters, each of them corresponding to a precise movement or position of (1) the hands; (2) other parts of the body (head, upper torso, lower torso, arms, legs, and so on); and (3) what he called points physionomiques, or facial points. The final pages of the work are devoted to pictorial representations of the characters and movements as well as examples of the writing itself. If the dictionary was of use to students and at least some instructors at the Paris school, the writing system did not catch on in France. Indeed, late in the twentieth century, efforts were still under way to create a system of graphic representation that conveys LSF gestural language, the system the late Paul Jouison labeled “D’Sign,” for example.

The larger part of the biography follows Bébian in his endeavors and accomplishments after his tenure at the Paris Institute. Berthier relates that in addition to Bébian’s advocacy efforts and the publications that came rolling off the presses at regular intervals, he founded in 1826 what can only be described as an experimental school for the deaf on the boulevard Montparnasse. The curriculum was creatively tailored to individual needs and aptitudes: beyond basic skills, it


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