SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 13

Sign Language Structure Stokoe, Jr. or more distant relatives similarly affected. The linguistic argument is simple but telling: the effect on social grouping of having or lacking a common language is obvious and intense enough ordinarily; but when the difference is not between dialects or languages but between having or lacking language, the effect is enormously intensified. There are records of successful attempts to teach persons deaf from birth to communicate in more socially acceptable ways, namely, by reading and writing, by manually spelling out language, and by lipreading and artificially acquired speech. But in the long stretch of time from antiquity to the middle of the eighteenth century these amount to the merest scattering of instances. 0.12. The real history of the sign language examined in this study begins in France in 1750. In that year the Abbé de l’Épée undertook the teaching of two deaf-mute sisters. What distinguished him from other brilliant practitioners in the art of teaching language to the congenitally deaf was an open mind and boundless charity. While others had instructed one or at most a handful of pupils, and seeking reputation and emolument, had paraded their successes while making a mystery of their methods, l’Épée gave his life, his considerable private fortune, and his genius to a school which in theory at least was open to every child born deaf in France, or in all of Europe. For nearly three decades he taught in and directed the school, making known its results only through monthly demonstrations open to the public until 1776, when he felt it necessary to answer criticism of his methods by rivals in a full exposition of his theory and practice. This work, L’institution des sourds et muets, par la voie des signes méthodiques (Paris, 1776), shows clearly that the basis of his success is an amazingly astute grasp of linguistic facts. A few years before l’Épée began his career Jacob Rodrigues Pereira had come from Portugal to France and begun teaching deaf-mutes. His method was to begin with practice in articulation and much later to teach writing and reading with the aid of a one-hand manual alphabet. Although one of his pupils, Saboureaux, was a striking example of his success, composing works on the education of the deaf, and attacking l’Épée in print, there is no doubt that demonstration of it could be misleading. As l’Épée says, a pupil taught to recognize the manual alphabet and form letters with a pen could demonstrate great decoding and encoding ability without really understanding anything of what he wrote; or a pupil could pronounce fairly intelligibly every French syllable without comprehending anything. In short, the language of the Pereira method was French, taught through articulatory exercises, ordinary writing, and a set of manual symbols corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. L’Épée also taught speech but relegated it to a minor part of the educational program. His pupils too demonstrated their ability to write correct and elegant French. But they could also reason and answer questions calling for opinions supported by an education in depth. What is more his dictations were given, not in a one-for-one symbolization of French orthography, but in one or the other or both of two very interesting sign languages. The difference between l’Épée and all his predecessors as well as many who followed him is his open-minded recognition of the structure of the problem. He could see his own language objectively and analyze its grammar in a way which made possible its transmission to and synthesis in the mind of a bright teen-age, congenitally deaf pupil in two years. He could also see the mind of a pupil as a human mechanism functioning by means of a language, without being alarmed at the fact that until the education was complete that language was not French. His detractors seem to have treated pupils as automata into which the French language--that is its pronunciation and orthography--could be built with the aid of suitable coding devices. SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 13