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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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The abbé Deschamps acknowledges the utility of signs or mimic language. He himself makes frequent use of it in his own lessons.

On the other hand, his opponent agrees that lipreading is a useful exercise and should form a part of the education of the deaf.

So the opinions of the two writers are not nearly as far apart as they appear to be; they are closer than they themselves realize. For their whole dispute comes down to determining which of two mediums, which they both regard as good, will be the basis of the education of the deaf. So the only decision concerns the primacy of one of these two methods.

Here is a thought that will, I believe, prove helpful in achieving a permanent solution to the whole difficulty. So certain is it that signs are the one means of communicating with the deaf that it is impossible to imagine any other. In the act of reading, whether of books or of the mouth or by the sense of touch, the deaf see in the written material only signs, nothing but signs; we will never get them to understand anything except through signs. “For hearing people,” as the abbé Deschamps very well puts it, “speech is spoken sounds, words; for the deaf, it is silent signs made with the speech apparatus to which they attach their ideas.”

Therefore, it is one of the uncontestable principles of the abbé Deschamps that the deaf person, when we are speaking to him or he to us, actually sees or makes only signs, signs or signals in the most literal sense

But what a difference there is between these sort of signs and those of mimic language or signs in the strict sense. By the writer’s own confession, the deaf person finds the former extremely difficult to comprehend and to perform. In addition, they are all absolutely arbitrary.

On the other hand, the signs of mimic language are always readily comprehensible, for they are just an image or gestural depiction of the thing meant. The deaf person performs these signs with great ease, and makes constant use of them—they are his true language. Moreover, these signs are not the least bit arbitrary; they necessarily give the idea of the thing of which they are the image and representation.

To make all this clearer, let us consider an example.

Suppose we want to evoke in the deaf person the idea expressed in French with the word chapeau [hat]. Can the abbé Deschamps doubt that I could accomplish this more quickly and easily by making the natural sign expressing the idea of hat than by getting the deaf person to note the play of the speech apparatus when I utter the word chapeau?

With a gestural demonstration, I give him, at once and without needing any explanation, the idea of hat.

With the demonstration by lipreading, I give him no idea at all in the strict sense. He sees that I am making certain movements with my mouth, and that is all. So it must be the case that: (a) I am teaching him to distinguish these movements from all the others I can make with my mouth, (b) I am giving him a clear and vivid idea of this by frequent repetition, (c) up to this point the deaf person knows nothing if I do not further teach him by repeated practice that this series of mouth movements is connected with the idea of hat—a connection he would surely never have suspected, (d) there remains another, even more difficult task of getting him to make the same movements and of getting him to pronounce the word chapeau himself. What a bore! What repellent difficulties both for teacher and student! Sign for sign, is it not better to prefer the simplest and easiest signs, especially at the start?


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