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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Rising of Lotus Flowers: Self-Education by Deaf Children in Thai Boarding Schools

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Youth who had recently entered the “regular” status validated the notion of a discernible pre-linguistic period. While asking the question How old were you when you entered school?, I was unable to make the question comprehendible for a group of fourth graders. A boy named Prem conducted the query on my behalf by asking, “Back when you knew nothing, when you first came to school, how old were you?”7 Four of his peers, also new regulars, were then able to answer the question without much hesitation.

Older pupils understand that the newcomers are in a period of adaptation—to the lifestyle of the institution, to being away from home, and to the sign language. Having passed through this stage themselves, the older students know that it takes time before the adjustment is complete. This expectation of upward growth is an implicit recognition that it is the conditions of home life that are the cause of this know-nothing condition. Older deaf youth have their own ideas about how to raise understanding in young deaf children, and their “theories” of education are seen in how they treat the younger children during free-time periods.

The first public act by older students toward the newcomer is to give him or her a personal name in the sign language. Shortly after school opened, two newcomers were observed signing their new names to each other. Their names had been based on their physical attributes: one was tagged as “bad-eye” and the other as “hair-parted.” They seemed proud of their new names, which they repeated again and again. Naming marks the beginning of individual identity within the student body. In fact, more differentiation of each individual occurs through the creation of a name-sign than through the spoken names. Among the four hundred students, several had the spoken name Maliwan or Prasit. Even though each child’s name is stitched on his or her uniform pocket, this information is used only by adults. The older students ensure that each child has a unique name-sign, which fosters student community. The assignment of a name-sign is an important ritual because it signals the entry of a new member.

Despite this ritual to acknowledge the individual, newcomers were treated like objects and made to “act in undifferentiated unison” (one of Henry’s [1976b] categories). From the first day, they are integrated into the regimen of drills and duties, being prodded and pointed into place. Emphasis was placed on the protocols of lining up, eating, and hygiene. Newcomers were didactically taught what they needed to know within concrete settings—and no more. This approach may be a rough attempt to provide a “scaffold” for learning, which would be in line with cognitive theory by Vygotsky (Berk 1994). The lessons were repeated endlessly in simple language. Pupils just a few years older handled training, still being watched over by senior pupils. Living side by side with more experienced children, the newcomers learned concept and language by watching and by participating.

Peers and teachers assertively shape the range of possible experience of the young children and of all the girls. Within the Thai culture, the classification of youth as dependent reduces their opportunities for dialogic interaction. Ironically, those who have the most to learn are those for whom communication is most restricted. The treatment seemed overly restrictive, yet the repetitive activities with matching vocabulary quickly produced a new responsiveness to communication in most of the children. Clignet has

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