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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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In all the arts and in all kinds of education it is an accepted principle that we must go from the known to the unknown, and that the first elements cannot he oversimplified So I think that a reflective person will judge that a deaf person must begin the study of reading and writing of any language with the help of his natural signs. Truly, for him these signs are the chief instrument of all the knowledge that he can acquire. Only when he has advanced beyond these first exercises should we he seriously concerned with the role of pronunciation on which, again, we should not rely more than is convenient (as was remarked in Note 7).

But in this system, objects the abbé Deschamps (p. 32), you impose an additional burden on the teacher—the burden of learning sign language.

Were this problem as real as the writer supposes, 1 doubt that people with enough spirit to take up such a hard task as the education of the deaf would he much deterred. The abbé de l’Epée’s door is always open, and he has already taught sign language to a great many people, so it is not terribly difficult to improve one’s knowledge of it, either with his help or that of his students.

Furthermore, sign language, as our deaf author wisely observes, is not a bed of thorns. A fairly intelligent teacher will always know enough naturally to begin his lessons. Continual practice will soon make him a skilled signer.

Finally, I am deeply persuaded that the abbé Deschamps actually does base his instruction on sign language, though without realizing it. His apparent coolness toward sign is in reality just a misunderstanding. I assume he has enough integrity and candor to agree and to yield to tile force of the reasons he finds in his opponent’s observations.

9. This example plainly shows us that sign language is a running definition of the ideas expressed in it, but a necessarily clear and unambiguous definition, for it consists entirely of images. The person using sign language can doubtless be mistaken, but we see in each expression—as through a transparent mirror—the precise idea he has of objects. If sign language were to gain universal currency, it would be an invaluable aid in the pursuit of truth. We would at least understand each other and there would be no issues that we could call arguments about words. It would be practically impossible ever to have arguments about signs.

10. It is indeed surprising that all the abbé de l’Epée’s demonstrations of the utility of sign language—designed by nature itself to become a universal language, a bond of communication between all men—have not yet inspired anyone to learn it. We grow pale poring over books in pursuit of an inadequate knowledge of dead and foreign languages, but refuse to devote a few weeks to the learning of this simple easy language which could become a supplement for all other languages.


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