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On The Natural Language of Signs; And Its Value And Uses In The Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb, Part 1

From: On The Natural Language of Signs; And Its Value And Uses In The Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb
Creator: Thomas Gallaudet (author)
Date: October 1847
Publication: American Annals of the Deaf
Source: Available at selected libraries


The American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb began publication in 1847. It became the standard arena in which issues surrounding deaf education were debated, and one can trace within its pages changes in the ways in which sign language, oralism, and Deaf culture were viewed by teachers and superintendents at institutions for the deaf during the nineteenth century. Here, in a very early issue of the Annals, Thomas Gallaudet outlines his understanding of what he called the “natural language of signs” and its importance in deaf education.

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By Rev. T.H. Gallaudet,


Former Principal of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.


THERE is scarcely a more interesting sight than a bright, cheerful deaf-mute, of one or two years of age, in a family composed of an intelligent, feeling father and mother, and group of older brothers and sisters who can hear and speak. The strangeness of his condition, from the first moment of their discovering it, has attracted their curiosity. They wonder at it. They sympathize with it. Perhaps they lament over it. By degrees, they become familiar with it. They feel a peculiar attachment to this object of their regard. They do all which their love and ingenuity can invent to make him happy. They rejoice to see that he seems more and more to understand and appreciate what they say to him and do for him.


But the greatest delight is yet to come. He is constantly struggling to make his wants and wishes known, and to convey his thoughts and emotions to those around him, by those various expressions of countenance, and descriptive signs and gestures, which his own spontaneous feelings lead him to employ. His originality and skill in doing this, -- his talking eye and face, -- his graphic and beautiful pantomime, -- his occasional pleasant mimicry, -- his gladsome satisfaction when he finds that he has made himself understood, -- his constant and rapid progress in this singular language which nature has taught him, and which is the only one as yet adapted to his insulated condition, -- the gradual development of his intellectual and moral powers, the greater and greater ease with which the members of the family, he being the teacher and they the pupils in this novel mode of intercourse, find that they can communicate with him, -- and the increasing stores of useful knowledge which he is thus accumulating, all conspire to throw an interest, and even charm, over such family scenes, of which those who have not participated in them can form but a faint conception.


The wind has been kindly tempered to the shorn lamb. The great principle of compensation has been effectually at work. Much substantial good has come out of apparent evil, and we feel almost constrained to conclude that one deaf-mute child in such a family -- taking into account the spring which is thus imparted to the inventive powers of their minds and the kindliest charities of their hearts, with the acquisition by all of a novel, highly poetical and singular descriptive language, adapted as well to spiritual as to material objects, and bringing kindred souls into a much more close and conscious communion than that of speech can possibly do -- is to be regarded rather in the light of a blessing than of a misfortune.


It would he a grievous misfortune, however, if one redeeming principle had not been at work: the natural, spontaneous facility with which the deaf-mute child is able to make his thoughts and feelings known to those around him by the expressions of his countenance and appropriate signs and gestures -- and if those around him, especially the mother and the younger members of the family, were not capable of easily understanding this language of the deaf-mute, and of rapidly learning it from him, and being able, in their turn, to use it.


This natural language of signs, spontaneously employed by the deaf-mute, and gradually enlarged and rendered more and more accurately descriptive by himself, and sometimes by the ingenuity also of the members of the family, develops itself with a remarkable similarity of features in all such families. Its similarity is so great that two uneducated deaf-mutes, who have never had any intercourse with others in a similar condition, can, at their first interview, communicate with each other on a considerable number of common subjects. Let them be together a few days or weeks, and the freedom and extent of this communication will be found to be constantly increasing, as they become familiar with each other's somewhat peculiar and dialectic modes of expression. They will be found, too, constantly and readily resorting to explanations and illustrations by the language of signs, and even to the invention of new ones by which to convey their thoughts and feelings, and which prove to be, at last, perfectly intelligible.


The universality of this natural language of signs is manifested also in the striking fact that the instructors of the deaf and dumb, who have become familiar, by their, habitual and long continued intercourse with their pupils, with this language in all it varieties and peculiarities, find it easy, as they meet in different parts of the country with the uneducated deaf and dumb, to converse with them on a considerable range of common subjects. The writer of this article, some years ago, was requested, with a fellow-laborer of his at the time in the American Asylum, to visit a deaf-mute in a neighboring town, about eighty years of age, possessed of some property, and desirous of making a will. He could not read nor write, nor use the manual alphabet. He had no way of communicating his ideas but by natural signs. By means of such signs, exhibiting a great deal of ingenuity on the part of the old man, myself and companion were able to understand definitely the disposition which he wished to make of his property among his relatives and friends, and thus to enable him to carry, his views into effect under the sanction of the law.

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