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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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TABLE 6. Major Social Groups of Deaf Thai Children

Status Level

Years in School Grade Level Physical Age (in years)
Seniors 8–10 7–9 15–19
Regulars 4–7  3–6 9–14
Newcomers 1–3 1–2 7–11

When interactions do occur between members of different social groups, they tend to be between adjacent levels, that is, seniors with regular students and regulars with newcomers. In authoritarian settings, seniors and deputies confer about disciplinary strategies. The deputies will then order about the youngest group during a task. Also in keeping with this pattern, most storytellers are just a few years older than their audience.

The social organization serves a useful role in promoting rich interactions among children within each status level. Children are “kept in their place,” and their associations are turned inwards to their peers. From the perspective of the youth’s social organization, each status level is a class of children who share common intellectual and physical characteristics. However, by looking at the individuals within each level, their diversity in intellectual, linguistic, and experiential domains becomes evident. Each level contains children with a range of ages; thus, elaborate and two-way interactions are often carried on between children who vary in age but who have only moderately different experience and skills. This intra-group diversity is a key advantage; it seems to provide teaching and learning opportunities that help children acquire the skills needed to move to a higher status level.

The pattern of limited interaction between children at different status levels was well-illustrated during a Scouts exhibition. The older boys built working models of field apparatus such as water wheels and pulleys, which they displayed on tables under the trees. This fixed location allowed placement of an unmanned videotape camera to capture the comments of the curious student body. The public display drew children of all ages. Little interaction occurred between children of different age groups. Clusters of children wandered up to an exhibit of model stick buildings. Usually, only one age group surrounded a display at a time. When there was a mixed group, members of one group seldom talked to members of the other. Rare cross-age interaction was often one-way, from older to younger child. Only the girls engaged in dialogue between different ages, and that interaction occurred between regulars and seniors (see figure 4).

The downward direction of communication mirrors the patterns of interaction seen between older and younger Thai people in formal settings. Younger people are expected to be silent unless asked to respond.

There seem to be clear markers of passage between status levels for all children. These markers can be seen as thresholds of skill in language and intellectual areas that the children judge to be important. Thus, each of the three status levels, newcomer, regular, and senior, has a corresponding intellectual state of its individual members. The terms that the children themselves use are “know-nothing,” “becoming mindful” and “to be smart.” They place those who have mental limitations in a fourth category that they call “numbskulls.” The following brief discussion of these states of mind, or, rather, transitions of mind, will demonstrate the intellectual basis of status distinctions among the students and how these distinctions fundamentally shape their learning experience.


Older pupils refer to new pupils as “know-nothings,” literally, “mind know-not.” The sign, made on the head, refers to both these students’ linguistic and cognitive development (see figure 5). A know-nothing, in the eyes of the older students, is someone who has little or no language, lacks reasoning skills, and is ignorant of school procedures. All deaf children now enrolled in the Thai schools that have been studied have hearing parents and have been isolated from sign language.5 A few have slight ability in the spoken language, which fellow students disregard because it has no function in their informal life.6 A small minority of newcomers are surprisingly communicative, alert, and curious. Yet many seem dazed, hapless, and younger than their age, perhaps because of the stultifying effects of poverty in which many are raised. Despite this diversity, all newcomers are treated together as a class that is utterly ignorant and dependent.

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