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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education

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this far-famed method. One of the chief and most august potentates of Europe [Emperor Joseph II] wanted to go into the most minute details of the work. He came away from the abbé de l’Epée filled with admiration, saying that of everything he had seen in his many travels, nothing had so touched and delighted him as the spectacle he had just witnessed. On returning to his homeland, he concerned himself with the establishment of a similar institution there and sent a worthy ecclesiastic to Epée to take lessons from him and to become familiar with his method.

Nor has our own august monarch [Louis XVI], who gloriously follows in the steps of the good and great Henri IV, neglected this art so precious to humanity. By his own account he has taken this institution under his royal protection, has already assigned it certain funds, and has taken measures to found, for the benefit of the deaf, an educational institution using the abbé de l’Epée’s method.

It is at this moment that An Elementary Course of Education for the Deaf appears in which the author Deschamps explicitly rejects this method and claims that it should be supplanted by another method, one requiring the deaf to attend to the various movements of the vocal apparatus and to imitate these movements. Before all else, this method begins with teaching the deaf person to make various speech sounds by giving him practice in performing the different mechanics of these sounds so that he is actually speaking for hearing people, and it teaches him to read speech sounds in the movements of the speaker’s vocal apparatus as if he were reading them from a book. Deschamps suggests that the deaf person can then proceed to reading and writing proper and eventually to the understanding of whatever language has been chosen as the basis for instruction. This is, at least, the clearest idea I could get of his system and procedure.

First let us see what the author himself thinks of his method:

“Our lessons are not accompanied by pleasure; far from it, they seem to feature a great deal of boredom and distaste; they are unhealthy . . . To these annoyances, add the inherent distastefulness that this instruction necessarily entails . . . the mutual impatience of teacher and pupils seeing the lack of progress produced by repeated effort, the most exact attention, the best will” [introduction, p. 4].

Elsewhere Deschamps says: “The repugnance of deaf people to having us put our fingers in their mouths and to consenting to put their fingers in our mouths can only be overcome with considerable vexation, determination, and patience . . . We must work at it all the more energetically as otherwise it is impossible to give them the use of speech” [p. 15]. He then naively depicts the extreme resistance encountered in persuading the deaf to employ these movements which must initially seem bizarre and utterly incomprehensible to them.

Finally he has the good faith always to represent his method as infinitely tedious, for the teacher as much as the pupils. His prefatory letter ends with these words:

“So I gradually accustom my pupils to writing and speaking . . . To reach this degree of perfection, we must find in the pupils a great desire to learn, intellect, memory, and judgment; and in the teacher, extreme sweetness and accommodation . . . It is impossible to give an idea of the patience required at the start of instruction” [p. 31].

I doubt that such an admittedly boring method, one that conspicuously reverses the natural order of instruction (beginning with the most difficult things and having the pupils work for a long time with no understanding of what is required of them), a method whose successful use demands qualities that are extremely rare in either teacher or pupil, can have many advocates. So I am unsurprised to find Deschamps expressing the desire “that the publication of this book can bring about another, shorter, and easier method” [p. 4].

How could he be so blind as not to recognize that this method was already at hand, long practiced with singular success by the abbé de l’Epée?

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