Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Deaf and Dumb


THE average man has no idea of the real meaning of the common adjective phrase "deaf and dumb." He occasionally sees a group in some public place conversing by means of signs or the manual alphabet, and he says to himself, "Deaf and dumb." Less often he comes in contact with an orally taught deaf person, and either talks with him or hears others talk with him, and goes away and says: "I met a deaf and dumb man to-day and heard him talk; it's wonderful, wonderful!" quite unconscious meantime that his way of expressing what he saw is also wonderful.

Sometimes this same average man hears that a friend's child has been born deaf, and if he is a little conservative he says: "Oh, well, the child can be educated at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum; they teach them everything there. Many deaf and dumb people are able to make a good living nowadays." If, however, our average man is fully up to the times, he says: "Oh, the child can be taught to talk just like other folks; they have got a way of teaching the deaf and dumb children to speak and to understand other people by looking at the motions of the lips; so they get along just about as well as though they could hear."

All this is very crude, no doubt, but it is safe to say that nine out of every ten people in ordinary life, whom circumstances have never brought in contact with the deaf, have very much the same ideas. To be deaf is to be unable to hear, and to be dumb is to be unable to talk. The lack of hearing is remedied by teaching the child to use his eyes and understand either signs or the motions of the lips, and the lack of speech is remedied by teaching the child to use his vocal organs or his hands to make others understand, and behold! the task is accomplished, and he is "just like other folks." Not one thought is given to language, to the wonderful medium of exchange by means of which the business of life is carried on, that is supposed to come by Nature, or instinct, or miracle, but never by teaching. A cultured lady, a literary woman, said to me once, after seeing some deaf children and hearing them go through certain vocal exercises which included every elementary sound in the English language: "Now, if these children can make all these sounds correctly, why don't they go right on and talk? What hinders them?" She was a bright woman, and when a very short explanation had been given her, the reason flashed upon her, and she said: "Why, what a fool I am! I see, they've got something to say, and the mechanical ability to say it, but no language to say it in," and in that one sentence she expressed the reason for being of all the institutions and schools for the deaf in the country. "No language to say it in," that expresses the condition of a deaf child's mind before he is taught very well, but perhaps "and no language to think it in" should be added. Let the reader try for himself and see how much consecutive thought he can accomplish without words; and if, with his mind trained by years of intelligent thinking, he can do little until the words come, let him imagine, if he can, the state of a mind cut off from language.

By way of example, let us take the seemingly simple fact of similarity or likeness between two objects. Your three-year-old baby says, "I want a woolly baa-lamb like that one," or "Dose two kitties is dust alike," or "Mamma, you didn't give me the same as brother" all expressions of the same idea of likeness. Now, an ordinary deaf child is eight or nine years old before he has acquired language enough to express either in speech or writing what the baby just learning to talk has said so easily—namely, the idea of similarity. Not but what he knows the things are similar; in this case it is simply the language that is wanting.

Language is a growth. A hearing child begins to absorb language from the very day of his birth. When he gets to be thirteen or fourteen months old, sometimes when he is younger, he begins to give back a word or two of the thousands of words which have been given to him over and over again every waking hour since he was born. It must be remembered that words spoken in a child's hearing are just as much given to him as words spoken directly to him. From the single words with which a baby begins he goes on to phrases and sentences, constantly learning to use more words or to use already familiar words in new ways, until at seven or eight or nine he is able to talk about common things just as intelligently as do his father and mother. In other words, he has learned to talk. His language has grown with his growth, nourished by the daily gifts of those about him, unconsciously given and unconsciously received, no doubt, but none the less contributing their share toward the future structure—i. e., the ordinary vocabulary of man.

Now let us see how the deaf child fares during these impressible years while his hearing brother is absorbing so much. He sees just as much as do the people around him, but it is all unexplained. If you were set down suddenly in utterly strange surroundings, you would be dazed until some explanation was made to you, but the deaf child must go without explanation for years. Life is one long pantomime to him until he goes to school, and the pantomime often means one thing to the person who uses it and another to the person who sees it. While the hearing child is acquiring the language of home, of play, of the street, of time and place and weather, of buying and selling, loving and praying, the deaf child is gaining only crude ideas of all these subjects. Let me illustrate, if I can. Take the matter of buying and selling, for instance. A hearing child wants to go to the store and buy five cents' worth of candy. Think how much language he uses in talking about it! He says: "Mother, I want five cents to go to the store and buy some candy. Will you give me five cents? May I go to the store? Please let me go. If I am good, may I go?" When he gets to the store he says: "I will have one stick of that, and one stick of that, and a cent's worth of this," etc., and when he comes out he says: "I bought some candy. I like to trade at that store. The woman gives good measure"; and when asked, "Who sold it to you?" he says, "Oh, the woman herself." Now look back, if you please, and observe the amount of language used in connection with this one very simple transaction. See the different moods and tenses, and the different constructions introduced. If an uneducated deaf child wanted to go to the store and buy some candy, he would hold up five fingers to his mother, put his hand to his mouth to indicate candy, and then make some sign for store, perhaps a gesture to represent the act of paying; and after he had been to the store and bought his candy, he would go through just the same pantomime to indicate the finished action as he used to indicate his unaccomplished wish, for he can not distinguish between time past and time to come by natural pantomime.

If this illustration seems tedious in its details, it must be pardoned, for its object is to make the average man see the great gulf which exists between the deaf child who knows how to buy some candy and the hearing child who knows how to buy it and talk about it, to express his desire for it, and to relate the facts concerning the purchase. There is but one bridge for this gulf, the bridge of language, and all the teachers of the deaf in this or any other country are at work building this bridge. They differ in their tools and in their methods of building, but their aim is always the same. Language, be it spoken or written, is what the deaf child must have if he is to understand the world about him as his hearing brother understands it, and all the discussion of the educators of the deaf to-day is as to how it can best be given to him.

The builders who have this task to accomplish work in two ways. Some—and they are among the oldest and the wisest of the master builders—lay their foundation and make the base of their structure of a material different from the bridge itself, while others use but one material from deepest-driven pile to topmost guard-rail. Each party of workers claims that its structure is the stronger and furnishes an easier highway whereby the deaf may pass from the isolation of their wordless state to companionship with the hearing, speaking world. Is the figure too complicated? A large number of the teachers of the deaf either teach, or allow the children to acquire from their schoolmates, a language of conventional signs. This language has a grammar and construction of its own, and an order differing from that of the English language; it is very comprehensive and flexible, and by means of it deaf children soon begin to enlarge their mental horizon. They find it tolerably easy to acquire, too, because many of the simpler signs are almost identical with the natural signs which they have learned or invented at home. By means of this sign language these teachers of the deaf impart ideas to their pupils, and these ideas they put into English, written English usually, and then spelled English (English spelled by the fingers), teaching the pupils to reproduce the English. To the children who show an aptitude for it they teach spoken English as well, and a comprehension of the spoken English of others, known as lip-reading. The deaf so taught usually converse among themselves by means of signs, and also use the sign language with such hearing persons as understand it. With such as do not understand signs they use the manual alphabet or writing, unless they are able to use speech intelligibly. The less intelligent think in signs; the more intelligent think in either written or spelled English, and, where they use speech, mentally translate. The method thus roughly outlined is known as the combined method. Nearly all the large institutions in the country use the combined method. The amount of speech, however, which is "combined" with the signs and written and spelled English varies greatly in the different States.

Two or three institutions, several day schools, some private schools, and many private teachers use another method, which differs radically from the one imperfectly described above. This method is the oral, or pure oral. Every child who enters an oral school is taught by speech, supplemented by writing. The sounds which make up the English language are taught to him—sometimes separately, sometimes in short words. He is made conscious of his own voice by feeling the vibration which it produces at the throat, under the chin, or at the point of the chin. His attention is called to the mouths of those about him moving in the motions of articulate speech on the first day of his school life, and, from that day until the last, he sees his teachers use only, as a method of communication with each other or the pupils, the English language, in either its spoken or written form. An atmosphere of English is created about him, and, as his vocabulary grows, he shapes his thoughts by means of words. His range of thought as he grows older is widened by means of the ordinary studies of the ordinary schools—stories, geography, history, physiology, biography, etc. What he does not understand is explained to him by means of what he does understand; simple language is used to make complex language more clear; but whatever is done is done by means of language, either spoken or written, so that what he writes or speaks is his own thought unhindered by mental translation.

There are cases which both these methods fail to teach, very moderate successes under both methods, and, besides, some very brilliant examples of highly educated, cultured, deaf ladies and gentlemen who have so far mastered the difficulties which beset them that they are able to take their places in life almost as though one sense were not lacking. The representatives of this last class who are personally known to me were all but one educated by the oral method. This one exception is a very warm advocate of the oral method, in spite of the fact that he was educated under the combined system.

The large number of average cases—the deaf people who are neither brilliant scholars nor apparent failures—are generally advocates of the system under which they were educated. The combined-method pupil claims that he enjoys life better because he has his signs by means of which he can take pleasure in the company of his deaf friends, and the oral-method pupil claims that with his speech and lip-reading he can accommodate himself to his environment in the speaking world; and that, if his speech is not understood, his written English is just as good as his brother's of the combined method.

And so it goes. Each thinks his own way the best.


A writer in Blackwood's Magazine, on the philosophy of blunders committed by persons under examination, assumes that the questions asked by the examiner are intended t awaken a recollection or to develop a kind of process of reasoning in the candidate. If the reasoning fails at any point or from any cause, a blunder appears in the answer. Some of the blunders cited by the writer, particularly in the scientific examinations, betray great confusion of mind, and are hardly accountable except on the supposition of inexact teaching or too hasty cramming. What did the pupil mean who answered that during summer "the weather is getting gradually warmer, caused by the rotation of the sun"; or that one who said that "the Tropic of Cancer is the meridian which passes round the earth midway between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn"? Various pupils answered questions about the tides by saying that they were "caused by evaporation," "by prevailing winds," "by different oceans meeting each other," "by the undercurrents meeting," "by the waves of the Atlantic pushing the surface waters westward," or other phrases, all betraying a confused recollection of some of the words they have read in the text-books, without the most remote conception of their meaning or their relation to the subject. Such obvious illustrations of the faults of defective teaching bear their own comments.