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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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When I am addressed in any European language, I must necessarily have two consecutive and independent perceptions: the perception of the sounds or words of this language; the perception of the ideas to be attached to these words. And because these two perceptions are, as I have just said, independent of each other (by virtue of the purely arbitrary relation between words and ideas then from what a speaker in any language says to me I see that he, like me, understands the words of this language, but I am not actually certain that he attaches the same ideas to them as I. This is particularly true of children, for they use language for quite some time without attaching any clear idea to the individual words. Well, how few adults are not children in this regard.

On the other hand, in sign or mimic language I necessarily go directly from the perception of the sign to the perception of the idea in just the way that when I see the outline of a tree, a house, or the like, I cannot help having the idea of this tree, of this house, and so on. So when a person depicts some objects with a gesture, the results are two great advantages that point up the excellence of sign language: my certainty that the gesturer has a clear conception of the object he is representing, because of the impossibility of depicting, with either pencil or gesture, what is not conceived in this way; my certainty that this manner of depicting my ideas will communicate them just as I conceive them, for he can see them only the way I represent them and I can represent them only as I conceive them.

I am so persuaded of the great benefits of sign language that, were I to educate normal hearing child, I would make frequent use of sign. I would get him used to translating his phrases into sign so that I would be sure that he attaches a clear and precise meaning to them. This exercise, which children take as fun, would be extremely valuable for my pupil and would furnish me with proof that I was not training a parrot.

6. Certainly, we can only applaud the wishes of the abbé Deschamps and of our deaf author on the publication of a dictionary of sign. I have even encouraged the abbé de l’Epée to take it up, but he has always seemed convinced that reading these signs would be less impressive than seeing them.

Epée and I are in complete agreement. Learning signs from a dictionary would be boring and tiring, whereas learning them by seeing them demonstrated is a game. Besides, just seeing signs in a book would result in misunderstanding. Further training and practice would be indispensable. Would one ever become a painter by making do with books on the theory of drawing and painting? Does one not need the constant manipulation of pencil and brushes? As sign language is just a natural depiction of ideas, any progress we make in it requires the same behavior as that required to develop a talent for drawing and painting, with the difference that to excel in the latter arts requires several years of assiduous study, whereas only a few weeks are needed to achieve passable fluency in sign language.

The abbé de l’Epée is currently overseeing the compilation of a dictionary of signs.

7. Let us speak frankly. Lipreading or lip-guessing is more plausible-seeming and awe-inspiring owing to its unexpectedness) than it is genuinely useful to the deaf. We know that M. Pereire works on getting his pupils to speak. He certainly has all the patience and talent required for success, but I must admit that even the best among his pupils still speak very poorly. Their pronunciation is loud, slow, disjointed, and grating on the ears because of the effort it evidently costs them.


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