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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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Indeed, once Epée had conceived the noble project of devoting himself to the education of the deaf, he wisely observed that they possessed a natural language for communicating to each other. As this language was none other than sign language, he realized that if he managed to understand it, the triumph of his undertaking would be assured. This insight has been justified by success. So the abbé de l’Epée was not the inventor or creator of this language; quite the contrary, he learned it from the deaf; he merely repaired what he found defective in it; he extended it and gave it methodical rules. The learned teacher considered himself like a man suddenly transported to a foreign people to whom he wanted to teach his own native language; he judged that the best way to manage this would be to learn the country’s language so as to give easily understandable instructions.

I ask of the abbé Deschamps himself: supposing he were planning to learn English or some other foreign language, how would he go about it? Would be begin by reading a grammar in English of which he understood not a word? Certainly not; he would choose an English grammar written in French, and would learn the new, unknown language easily with the help of his native language.

That is precisely the route taken by the abbé de l’Epée. Could he do anything more sensible or rational? He did not require, as the abbé Deschamps believes [p. 37], a great deal of time, pain, and labor to create his instructional system using natural signs. Order in his ideas, rightness in his observations, a concern to follow nature as a guide in everything—these are the means he made use of, this is the whole magic of his art.

I, no less than the abbé Deschamps, hold speech in great veneration and am mindful of its benefits for the deaf. For that very reason, I take exception to his condemnation and proscription of sign language, for I am persuaded that it is the surest and most natural means for leading the deaf to an understanding of languages, nature having given them this language to substitute for the other languages of which they are deprived.

But is it certain that sign language is natural for the deaf?

Deschamps piles up the most shocking contradictions about this question. He affirms both the positive and the negative.

“Not only does a common inclination lead the deaf to make signs; but all men make use of them naturally: this penchant determines that we who enjoy the use of speech and hearing make use of signs among ourselves without our notice” [p. i].

Two pages further on we read: “No one can deny it, signs are natural to man.”

After such a formal declaration he seriously asks, on the very next page, whether signs are a product of nature or of education. He repeats the same question [p. 8], and finally [p. 12] he solemnly resolves it with these words: “So this inclination is the effect merely of education and not of nature.”

The reader then has to choose between these two contradictory opinions: “sign language is natural to the deaf” and “sign language is not natural to the deaf.” Whichever opinion the reader embraces, he is sure of having the same opinion as either the abbé Deschamps on page 3 or the abbé Deschamps on page 12.

The author greatly exaggerates the difficulty of sign language [p. 32ff]. If he had given its nature more thought, he would have seen that all men possess its essential basis; for everyone can, when he wishes, use gesture to depict and hence explain the ideas and affections that concern him and that he wants to communicate to others. The belief that sign language is difficult is prompted only by a lack of practice in it.

So what happens to the abbé de l’Epée when he explains the principles of sign language? Spectators at his demonstrations all agree that nothing could be simpler and easier, that anyone could do it.


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