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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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To demonstrate the tedium of these procedures, let us take some of the commonest conversational words such as applaudissement [applause], aplatissement [humiliation], assoupissement [drowsiness], or the like.

These three words together contain at least forty-one letters that must be lipread one by one with the touch method or felt to be written on the palm with the second method. What intelligence, what memory, what a fine tactile sense, how much time it will take to express and remember them all!

Even in total darkness sign language requires only four or five signs to convey these same words, and these signs will be as expressive as speech and as rapid as the wind. This is the whole secret of signing. When I am in darkness and wish to speak to a deaf person, I take his hands and with them form the signs that I would be making with my own hands if I were in daylight. When he wishes to answer me, he in turn takes my hands and forms them into the signs he would be making with his own if we could see clearly.

Despite Deschamps’s seemingly unreflective aversion to signs, he still makes frequent use of them in his method of education through speech.

Explaining in his preface or preliminary lesson how he teaches his deaf pupils the names of things, he says [p. xxx]: “I always get them to combine the sign for the thing with the verbal expression so as to make them understand the thing when it alone is not by nature sufficiently palpable.” He continues: “The conjugation of verbs presents a host of problems; person, numbers, tenses, and so forth . . . It is true that for this I had recourse to signs to make myself understood.”

He discusses [p. 67] how he explains and elaborates the idea of God to his pupils, adding: “We fully realize that signs are of great help in this exercise.” He also says [p. 69]: “after getting them to read these details several times and having explained them to them by natural signs,” and so on; see also [p. 125] a long passage where he tells how he always explains pronouns by means of natural signs, and so on and so on.

Here again Deschamps’s own practice belies his principles, and indeed what means other than signs could he use for explaining words and ensuring that his pupils understand them? I tell him emphatically: if in the education of the deaf we suppress the use of signs, it is impossible to make the pupils anything but machines that speak.

Deschamps uses bits of thread to explain how syllables must be connected. These bits of thread are signs, but they are signs of his own invention. It would have been easy to find some simpler, less cumbersome signs. He seems to have a great dearth of signs. Perhaps he also uses bits of thread to explain in class the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

From the abbé Deschamps’s own practice, we must conclude that the chief instrument in the education of the deaf must be sign language and that, like it or not, we will always come back to this method for the compelling reason that sign is their natural language, the only one they can understand until with its help we have taught them another one. So it was a great deal of trouble for nothing to make so much hullabaloo against this poor language of signs!

The abbé Deschamps too often forgets that the abbé de l’Epée’s goal is not exactly the learning of sign language. This language is the means, not the end of his instruction. The wise Epée overlooks no branch of education for which the deaf are suited. Thus in addition to religion—the first of the subjects for his thorough instruction—and in addition to reading, writing, basic mathematics, plus the three or four languages of which he gives a smattering to his most apt pupils, he also concentrates on getting them to speak; like the abbé Deschamps, he familiarizes them with guessing or reading speech through lip movements.7 But he prepares his pupils for these two exercises by reading, writing and an understanding of words. Now who does not suppose that once the deaf understand perfectly the meaning of words, they will find it easy to make the transition from reading to speech, or rather, to put it more accurately, they will learn without difficulty both reading and speech at the same time?

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