Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Speech for Deaf Children


LESS than thirty years ago no attempts were made to give speech to the deaf children of this country. Signs, writing? and finger-spelling were the means of communication employed. It had been a gigantic task to arrange a system of education for a class of persons previously supposed incapable of advancement, and it is not surprising that articulation in its early days fought hard for recognition among the older teachers. Happily, the spirit of opposition is waning, and there is now a friendly admiration manifested by them for the best intelligible speech given to the deaf. They are right in demanding that it be intelligible. It is easy to accustom one's ears to the articulation of a person seen daily, and if the pupil conversed with none but his relatives and teachers there might be no complaint about peculiarities. Such is not the case, however. With rare exceptions the deaf child must struggle in the world just as his hearing brothers and sisters do. The speech that comes easily to them is acquired by him at the expense of time and effort; it is his due that it should be made intelligible and agreeable.

As is generally known, the various States have large institutions for the deaf and dumb, or, as sometimes called, deaf-mutes. Dumb and mute are terms no longer applicable to the deaf who receive the best instruction; for it is now conceded to be a mark of neglected education to be unable to speak to some extent. Formerly they were dumb because deaf; now those who are dumb are so because untaught. The first superintendents to give articulation any place in their institutions considered it an added touch to give occasional pleasure. They were too strongly attached to signs to believe instruction in the various school branches could be given by speech and reading from the mouth. A comparatively few scholars, chiefly those who once heard, were put in classes and received lessons in speech a half hour daily, or four times a week, perhaps less. During the other hours there was no practical use of what was gained. In all the branches of the course, the teacher, in many cases a sign-taught mute, conducted the recitations in signs, finger-spelling, and writing. Spoken words were not used more than is German or French by the average child who has a lesson in the language with many others a few times a week. Thus articulation failed to obtain a fair opportunity to show its merits. Gradually some of the various obstacles to its success have been removed, and its teachers are making persistent efforts to secure to every deaf child a chance to speak and to read the lips.

Upon the question how far school instruction can be imparted through these means without the aid of signs and finger-spelling opinions differ. In justice to many it must be remembered that they receive all classes of pupils; often they are bright and in good physical condition, but some are diseased, of ignorant parentage, and small ability. It may be the latter class remain in school but a short time. While there, thanks to the State's generosity, they need not be of any expense to their relatives; it often happens, however, that they can not be spared long from home duties. The principal must arrange to give them all the knowledge he can while they remain with him. No plan covering years will answer for them. Neither will a plan suitable for them be sufficient for those better situated and conditioned. Perhaps the teacher is himself deaf, the graduate of some State institution, a member of one or more organizations of deaf-mutes, associating daily with sign-taught adults. Without casting any disparagement upon his abilities, we beg leave to say he is not as competent to decide the matter as a hearing person would be; he receives opinions from both sides, but he can not judge impartially. The greater his faith in the character of those who advocate articulation, the greater his faith in that system, but being sign-taught himself, he would like to feel his education was superior. Some principals have an oral department, by which is meant that a certain number of pupils are taught speech, and by speech receive instruction in all studies. As much as possible they are kept apart from the other pupils. This is a decided improvement upon the first arrangement, though it is a matter for regret that some should have such an advantage over others. A few superintendents feel this, and are arranging to have all new pupils taught speech, and as the older ones are graduated the manual department becomes small. Other institutions advocate a combined method, using both speech and signs with all pupils, one or the other system receiving the greater attention according to the views of the principal in charge. Schools have been opened which give instruction to all pupils by speech only, and are called oral schools, and a number of teachers are scattered over the country who fill the positions of resident or visiting governesses. Thus there is a disposition to advance the cause of the education of the deaf, and a wide difference in opinion as to what is best.

The true test is in results. That system is excellent which enables the deaf pupil to take his rightful place in the world, attain business and social success, to be like unto others. Correct, fluent speech, with voice more or less agreeable, and the ability to understand others by watching the facial movements (whch is called lip-reading or speech-reading), may be acquired by the boy or girl suddenly deprived of hearing by illness or born deaf. To secure these desirable gifts the pupil must be educated by a system which gives speech in the beginning and imparts all instruction through that medium. Prof. A. S. Hill, in calling attention to the poor showing in written language even among the college-bred, dwells upon the importance of practice sufficient to enable the pupil to write without thought of the mechanical difficulties, maintaining that to be the first essential in efforts to acquire a good style. "A boy must have written much before he can form his letters without special pains; and much more before he can set down what he has to say without stumbling over punctuation, spelling, and grammar; and more still before he can write with facility." Upon the same principle the deaf child must articulate words long before he can do so readily; must speak in sentences long before he can do so fluently; and must talk on every occasion, to his teacher, to his classmate, in his lessons and in. his play, before he can do so easily to the stranger and in society. Practice is the only means of attaining a spontaneous use of the vocal organs. Nothing else will do away with a consciousness of the mechanical difficulties.

The hearing power of the young infant is an unknown quantity, because the sensitive bundle of tissues responds quickly to impressions from various sources and is thus misleading. A loud noise may startle by its strong vibrations against the skin fully as readily as by the auditory sense. Intelligent parents have failed to discover deafness until their children were over a year old. The look of the very young deaf child is usually an interested one, accompanied by fewer unnecessary movements of the eye and less play of the facial muscles. From increased observant faculty comes a marked development of the imitative functions. The child's hands spring to his help. He goes through motions that he has noticed those about him use; in their case, however, speech and lack of observation have kept them from consciousness of those movements. They begin to see his, they are unaware of theirs; to them the child has invented his own signs. This fact discovers another. It is impossible for the normal human being of tender age to imitate easily a position of the mouth unaccompanied by the sound belonging to it; thereby proving the ear guides him more than the eye, and it is the absence of the hearing sense that obliges the vision to act early in behalf of the deaf child. A boy of two years was told to imitate what he saw in another's face; the lips were pursed, but he failed to round his until the sound of oo was made, though his deaf brother, noticing his difficulty, brought a spool to him to show the shape. Through hereditary tendencies the connection between the ear and the speech center is short and practicable; through educative means that between the eye and the speech center may be complete and effective. Hearing need not be lacking to secure this result, for one possessing an acute ear may read speech from the facial movements. It is doubtful if there are many of the teachers of articulation to the deaf, a work requiring sensitive hearing, who consciously or unconsciously do not put to practical use some of their knowledge of the appearance given to the features by speech. This ability of the eye to take upon itself duties heretofore supposed to belong to the ear exclusively is a priceless boon to the deaf. Let others be instructed according to Francis Gouin's axiom: "The organ of language—ask the little child—is not the eye; it is the ear." We may add, if the ear has lost its cunning, the eye is a wonderful substitute.

The signs used in educating the deaf were perfected by hearing men and are arbitrary, learned by teacher as well as pupil, and unintelligible to most persons. The first signs employed by the little child, being copied from those in daily use among all classes of people, are termed natural. They express the putting on and taking off of the hat and coat, and thus the going out and the return home; the opening and closing of books, boxes, and doors; the acts of eating and drinking, driving, whipping, pushing, pulling, beckoning, running, and jumping. Animals are watched. The shape of the cat and the dog's mouths while giving their peculiar cries, "meaw" and "bow-wow," is copied; the curious action of the rabbit's legs when the creature is lifted by the ears is noticed and imitated; the first and second fingers of both hands raised to the head show that the movements of a horse's ears are observed. Impressions being conveyed through the sense of touch, the child communicates with others by describing in gestures the shape of the object he has felt. His eye has seen the form of a ball; but he knows more about it than the eye can reveal, for he has put his hands around it. Touch, taste, and smell come to his aid. The lack of facial movement gives place to grimaces; the nose becomes an expressive feature, and bitter and sweet, like and dislike, are revealed by strong looks. Accompanying ignorance of sounds there is an unconscious play of the vocal organs, forming a series of more or less unpleasant grunts and screams. The child's mental food is in what he sees, pictures or "images." He makes good use of all, showing an excellent ability to reason, but is liable to mistakes incidental to the fact that he may not have had the truth presented to him. A piece of chalk has been broken. He puts the parts together, appealing in that way to have it mended. His faith is large and his knowledge small. Some one takes them from him, dexterously substitutes a fresh crayon, and gives it to the child. He is not to blame for thinking it is possible to put together the pieces so perfectly that no one can see the mark of break. At another time, the honest-minded person who tries to show him that such injuries can not be repaired will be thought unkind and unwilling to join the parts.

In the opinion of many, deaf persons are high-tempered, unruly, obstinate, and vindictive. The untrained, uneducated deaf may become so, just as the untrained, uneducated child in full possession of hearing may grow into a dangerous brute. It is not the deafness that is responsible. Too much stress can not be laid upon the importance of inculcating prompt obedience. There is no reason why a deaf child should not respond quickly to another's wishes. It is impossible to explain matters to him; teach him to obey, and let him learn by observation why he is required to do so. Obedience implies self-control. All progress, mental and moral, must be regulated by the greater or less amount of self-control. A deaf child may give a telling blow; unable to hear it, he fails to realize the degree of force exerted. How shall he be taught he has done wrong? By a blow directed to him? That would teach him that what he gave another can hurt, but what does he think of the adult who strikes him? Would he not be likely to feel that the older person by giving a blow practically indorsed its use? The next step would be to reason that it is justifiable to give one, but well to avoid receiving another in return. The best way to punish and thus teach the child to drop lawless expressions of his displeasure must be to show one's power without a trace of anger. If he is held firmly in a chair despite struggles and cries he will realize he is being controlled. He is conscious of his act and knows he is deprived of his liberty in consequence. He sees determination but no anger in the face of his instructor, and learns that tears and screams are unavailing. There is no need to indulge in such useless efforts. He has tired himself, only to find his keeper fresh and undaunted. A slap would have suggested retaliation. Pinching could be easily returned. This superior, calm strength is something different and so far beyond his own abilities as to compel respect. In time the expression in the face is sufficient to enforce obedience, and the hands need rarely exert their firm, strong hold. The child's conscience is formed by the series of impressions he receives from the decided approval or disapproval in the faces about him. There may be times when more severe punishment is required, but rarely if proper training is received in early life. It should be remembered that the deaf child is not conscious of the effect of the unpleasant screams and resounding kicks he may give when he throws himself down some day in temper. All his dramatic exhibition may have less behind it than has the "No, I won't!" of the hearing child. We admit that the scene made by one and the attitude of the other are equally unpleasant, but the second may reveal greater defiance than the first. Speech is the expression of feeling, and feeling is best aroused through the hearing. Here is a means of cultivation cut off from the deaf. Can the education of the eye ever become sufficiently developed to atone for the loss in this direction? Most certainly not. The diversion made by hearing a remark, a laugh, a song, or a musical instrument has oftentimes prevented a quarrel, dissipated a worry, or broken a willful determination. The deaf are deprived of this means of receiving a fresh turn to thought, and this fact should be borne in mind when it is noticed that their disposition is not to give up a plan once adopted.

What the deaf may become if untaught is not an agreeable picture to face. Some idea may be formed by recalling that they were classed among the idiotic in the years they were neglected and deemed unworthy of efforts to educate. Here is a child, bright, healthy, and active, with an avenue to his brain obstructed. Reasoning from limited knowledge gathered by his observations alone, he misunderstands many efforts to do well by him. He is conscious of lack of communication with others; in a little while he may be morose and unhappy. Give him the speech he knows not, and the language that is to him a sealed book. With care during the first years it is possible to develop an agreeable voice. It would be wrong to claim it can become always musical or perfectly natural; just as wrong is it to assert that some voices happen to be good, some acquire peculiar tricks for which there is no remedy, or that it is right to be satisfied with any vocal efforts obtained. The exhaled breath pushing its way between the edges of the glottis becomes voice. If poor, it must be so from incorrect action of the edges; if good, from correct action. The teacher who understands how to secure the proper working of this delicate instrument can give the pupil a good voice. Speech is related to the affections more than to the intellect. The prompting of the actions of the vocal organs comes from the stirring of some emotion. If the intensity is great, cool judgment has no influence upon the voice unless long experience has developed self-control; if fear or timidity is felt, results are noticeable immediately. The deaf child's happy state is therefore absolutely the first essential for securing a warm or affectionate tone; next, his thoughts must be thrown out away from himself to enable the organs to act without tension. It is for this reason we are not impressed with the wisdom of educating the touch of the finger tips to feel the vibrations of the vocal cords, believing as we do that such a method by centering attention upon the throat, a part of the pupil's body, prevents the developing of pure, resonant tones.

The voice formed in the larynx is molded into the numerous vowels by various shapes assumed by tongue, lips, and soft palate, and into consonants by decided actions of the same organs. Compare voice thus changed to a stream of water lazily moving amid green banks, now cutting its way through rock, broken into rapids or plunged over a precipice. The smooth running is like the vowels formed by open positions molding a steady current of voice; the breaks and plunges like the consonants formed by actions producing friction or even obstructing the breath momentarily. Vowels are the life of speech; in them lies expressive voice. The consonants are the receptacles giving temporary limits to the vocalized breath. Thus the secret of agreeable voices among the deaf is instruction based on a realization that all useful exercises in vocal culture should be founded upon perfect action of the edges of the glottis. This assured, vowels and consonants combined, forming words, may be learned as rapidly as they can be memorized. The hearing child has listened months before attempting to talk, gradually gaining confidence to use his own organs, and as nearly as possible imitating the sounds about him. Very crude are his first efforts, differing widely from his speech model. Yet no one doubts his ultimate success. Let the same confidence be manifested with the deaf child in his first lessons. Care in securing correct positions for sounds brings out lines of beauty in his face, previously disfigured by unpleasant and unnecessary movements.

How is the pupil to know the meaning of the words he learns? It is necessary to explain by the natural signs he employs; consequently his first spoken and written words must be equivalents of the same objects he has designated by a gesture, of the daily actions about him, of the qualities he has appreciated by taste, touch, and smell. Single words thus become intelligible to him. He drops the sign and speaks; his vocabulary constantly enlarges. Now a new difiiculty presents itself. The grouping of words, the forming of phrase and sentence, he has no knowledge of; moreover, when grouped he does not grasp the shades of meaning thus conveyed to the hearing person. He is likely to say "Sugar like, to express his fondness for the sweet; "Horse car go" to him means "I will go in a horse car." He has no use for a, an, and the, is contemptuous of the changes in tense, and is baffled by idioms. No one can realize without experience the need of patience and ingenuity in the teacher who imparts language to the deaf child; no one can have sufficient of these qualities who does not strive to keep in mind the pupil's limited range and thus bear with his ignorance. The hearing person studying a foreign tongue has his own language to help him. Grammar can be remembered because similar or dissimilar to his own; arrangement of words, by resemblance or want of resemblance to the forms in his daily use. Nothing of the kind is present to aid the child born deaf; He knows no reason why words should he arranged in certain orders. Day by day the same forms are repeated until, brought into play on every appropriate occasion, they are used spontaneously. Fortunately, the scholar does not know what is before him. Ignorant of the amount he is to learn, he absorbs his daily allowance of language, his ideas expanding, and his mind unfolding. All is delightful to him. It is the teacher who feels the great work to accomplish. Various studies can be taken up by the pupil after he has secured some hold of language and his education can be made identical with that of a hearing student. There are no limits for him but his inclinations or circumstances.

A large number of the deaf were not born in their present condition; statistics prove that many have lost hearing by disease or accident after learning to speak in the natural way. If this should occur when two or three years of age, or when even somewhat older, and no educative means are employed immediately, the speech becomes impaired in a short time. Should the child be ten or more years old, he retains his articulation fairly well, but in common with those younger, the voice rapidly acquires unpleasant characteristics. Such children in former years were silenced in the institutions. Their knowledge of speech and remembrance of forms of expression in language develop into a great advantage over those of the same age who never heard. The difference is inestimable. There is far less chance for misunderstandings, less mystery about ordinary matters; the mind is older. The impaired speech may be corrected, the voice brought under control, and instruction in speech-reading imparted at once.

Formerly the ability to understand what is said by movements in the face was called lip-reading; the term is unsatisfactory, for more than the lips must be watched. Of late this accomplishment has received the name of speech-reading. It is an ability to follow the varying expressions in the face as quickly as they appear, and thus to convey thought through the medium of the eye instead of by the hearing. Persons reading the above will look up at some one present, and after watching the face awhile will wonder how it is possible for any being to follow those movements and understand speech thereby. They attempt too much at once. Preliminary steps must be taken. The little child just beginning to read can not scan a page quickly. Success in speech-reading means an education of the eye secured by practice. Its attainment by the child born deaf grows with his knowledge of spoken language; the child who has lost hearing after having learned speech naturally, advances in ability to understand others in proportion to his dependence upon that method of communication. The wonderful organ which gives us so much happiness, and which we find early in life carries messages to the brain in behalf of some sense lying dormant, must concentrate its gaze upon a small space, the human face. The range being limited, more detail is noticeable; attention is not diverted by general movements embodying arbitrary or natural signs, to the hand and arm, or to the whole figure. There is an opportunity to increase constantly an appreciation of shades of expression just as a discernment of the nice distinctions of well-chosen words is attained. The result is, the deaf child follows in the face of a reader the details of a story with all the relish the hearing would in listening. There is no staring, simply a quiet, steady gaze. The repeating of the words seen, proves the close connection between the eye and the speech-center.

There is no doubt many children born deaf have hearing sufficient if educated to enable them to receive correct impressions through that sense, and to be in a condition similar to that of so-called hard-of-hearing persons. One reason they do not use the ear to better advantage is that they are ignorant of linguistic sounds. The adult losing his hearing power has the advantages of a full vocabulary, a knowledge of the structure of the language, and a mastery of its idioms, combined with an ability to hold conversation in his own hands; he can learn speech-reading, which with him is a high degree of expression-reading, and he need not change his vocation or pleasures, save those requiring a somewhat sensitive condition of the auditory sense. It would be far otherwise if he had to secure language with the small amount of hearing he now possesses. Many children are deaf because of a slow perception of sound, without reference to any functional disability. They must be taught to listen, for without the strain of attention the loudest noises may be unheeded. The work of opening to them an appreciation of the world of sound is called development of hearing, and is thus designated to distinguish it from improvement of hearing; the latter is an assistance to deafness arising from a diseased condition of the ears, and is rendered by various mechanical aids, such as noise, hearing tubes, and trumpets. In developing hearing, progress depends upon using the auditory sense alone. When the vision and hearing work together in aural instruction, there is an unnatural dependence of the latter upon the former, and no regard paid to the hereditary tendencies to action between ear and speech-center. The result is that the pupil seldom understands a new word unless he first sees it upon the lips. After instruction which compelled the hearing to rely upon its single efforts the various sounds of the language are appreciated immediately in any order given; as all words are but rearrangements of the same elements, new ones can be repeated as readily as familiar ones. The strain of attention being undivided, ability to hear sounds at a longer range grows somewhat. Noise acts as an irritant in these cases instead of aiding as in deafness due to disease.

With speech and speech-reading attained, and perhaps the happy addition of some perception of sound, the deaf need not be thrown together as a class distinct from others. They may and do receive instruction in common with their hearing friends, attending leading schools and entering professional duties side by side with them. Such persons have been charged with an unwillingness to associate with the other deaf. Lack of interest in their welfare we do not believe possible, but a preference for the companionship of the hearing proves the existence of a satisfying method of communication. All are easily influenced by surroundings, and if deprived of any particular sense, especially so. The deaf need every advantage possible, and not the least of them should be adjudged daily intercourse with the most evenly balanced characters, persons possessing a normal development of all the senses.