readings> how the deaf think in sign words

If speech forms an "inner code" scaffolding thought in hearing people, then how do the deaf think? That simple question has an answer that threatens to shake the education of the deaf to its foundations.

Recent research has shown that our inner voice, the private use of speech in our heads, is essential not just for abstract thinking but also plays a key role in other higher mental functions such as memory and self-awareness. The inner voice is like software that we use to drive the hardware of the brain along. But people born profoundly deaf will never hear a noise so will never have the auditory imagery with which to conjure up such an internal monologue. Their only alternative is to think in sign language.

Yet for the past century, the hearing world has made every attempt to suppress signing in the belief that it isolates the deaf from society. In deaf schools, pupils have even been made to sit on their hands, or had their wrists sellotaped behind their back, to stop them resorting to the language that comes most naturally to them.

The sign language used by the deaf originated in the late-1700s. A French priest, Charles de l'Epee, invented a system of signalling by gestures, fingerspelling and facial expressions. At the time, the deaf were seen as hopelessly retarded and hardly worth bothering with. They appeared trapped in a blank wilderness; not just lacking speech but also a sense of self, a sense of the past or of the future. Yet through de l'Epee's sign system, many deaf people were transformed. Over the next hundred years, the use of signing spread rapidly.

But then in 1880, an international congress of deaf teachers decided that the effort should be made to teach the deaf to speak. The congress voted to abandon signing for a newly developed oral method whereby the deaf were taught to lip read and pronounce words. Despite the fact that the oral method was often a complete failure, sign language was still banned from the classroom. Signing was driven underground, to be seen only in quiet corners of the playground or to be discovered belatedly in adult life.

Oralism was founded on the assumption that the deaf are locked away inside intact minds, their only problem being that they lack the means to communicate their inner thoughts. The method's erratic results were felt merely to reflect the difficulties of teaching children to mouth words they would never hear.

Worries about oralism started in the 1970s when a Cambridge professor, Ruben Conrad, tested the reading ability of deaf teenagers trained by the oral method. Conrad found that the average deaf school leaver had a measured reading age of about eight. On closer investigation, even this turned out to be an overestimate because while the teenagers could recognise individual words, they were tending to read parrot fashion, failing to take in the meaning of the sentences.

Conrad's findings appeared to bear out the old myths about the deaf. Up unto the 1960s, many psychologists still believed the deaf to be generally retarded as if their inability to hear had somehow stunted their overall mental development. However, what Conrad discovered with his deaf readers was that rather than being feeble minded, their problem was quite specific - they could not "hear" themselves reading inside their heads.

Hearing children find it a simple matter to internalise the sounds of language. When hearing children read, the words ring out through this inner directed speech, lingering long enough in short term memory to bring the printed page alive. But because Conrad's teenagers had no auditory imagery with which to create such an inner voice, the words entered their minds as a disjointed sequence of visual shapes rather than as a flow of meaning.

Reading is only one of the most obvious uses of the inner voice in hearing people. It is becoming clear from the studies of cognitive psychologists that internalised language has a role to play in many of the other mental skills that distinguish man from the animals; skills such as abstract thinking, the recall of memories, and the construction of a self-image. The inner voice is almost like a programing language that we use to exploit the natural animal hardware of the brain in new and distinctly human ways. For deaf people, the lack of such an internal code makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use their mental hardware in the same structured manner.

Of course, not all deaf people suffer such problems. In fact many have perfectly good minds and have little trouble holding down jobs as teachers or engineers. The difference, researchers have found, is that either such deaf people have enough residual hearing to form the necessary inner voice - or else they are proficient signers and have learnt to do their thinking in sign language!

Dr Jim Kyle of Bristol University, who followed up Conrad's work in the 1980s, says: "It's a difficult question asking anybody how they think. Deaf people say things like they might visualise a shopping list or imagine finger-spelling the initial letters of items. But it's very hard to get a clear answer."

Kyle says the way the inner code hypothesis was tested was to see if deaf signers were prone to the same sorts of confusions and slips of the tongue that hearing people make - only in their case, of course, with signs. For example, signers were made to grip building blocks tightly in their hands while memorising a list of words. This had the same disruptive effect as making hearing people repeat the nonsense phrase "Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill" during memorisation tasks. Signers also tended to make mistakes like confusing the word "vote" for the word "tea" - words which look quite different when read during a memory test but which have almost identical handshapes when coded in the internal language of signers. Further proof that signers think in sign language came from the way deaf people would sign in their sleep or "think aloud" with fluttering hands when struggling to answer a difficult test question.

The discovery of the importance of a fluent inner code to deaf people's thinking has been only one of two recent blows struck against the oralist tradition. With the advent of new brain scanning techniques in the 1980s, neurologists, such as Dr Ursula Bellugi of the Salk Institute in the US, have discovered that signing uses the same left hemisphere processing centres as spoken language. Up until a few years ago, oralists had been able to dismiss signing as inherently second rate in the belief that, being a visual language, it must be processed in the ungrammatical right hemisphere.

The work of neurologists has also emphasised the need to educate deaf children in sign language at as early an age as possible. All children have a latency period for learning languages - a time from the age of birth to about four years old when the brain's wiring is so plastic that it absorbs the "rhythms" of a language like a sponge. The small number of deaf children who are born to deaf parents usually become exceptionally expert signers because they are exposed to sign language at a young age. However, under present education methods, most deaf children are not exposed to signing until late childhood, by which time their left hemisphere language centres will have "hardened", making the learning of any language an uphill struggle.

"There is still a lot of debate over what are the minimal levels of exposure needed to stimulate the language centres. But it is clear that deaf children need early experience of some sort of language - whether it is sign or oral - if they are going to be good communicators in later life," says Professor David Wood, a leading deaf educationalist at Nottingham University.

Under this assault from research, the oralist establishment has started to crumble. A few pioneers, like Leeds Local Education Authority, have embarked on a new policy of bilingualism where deaf children are exposed to both speech and sign language at the earliest age possible.

For Leeds, the policy change was not a trivial matter. Miranda Pickersgill, chief of deaf services for Leeds says: "Basically, we had to scrap our service and start again. We had to go out and hire deaf signers for a start. The changes needed to traditional structures are a pretty daunting prospect for most authorities - especially in the present funding climate."

Pickersgill admits the politics can also be daunting: "Bilingualism is still very much a hot potato. We have come in for a lot of flak and been accused of pushing deaf children into a signing ghetto. Yet the deaf had a big price to pay when the old methods failed. Not only could they not communicate, but they were left without a code to think in. We can no longer ignore what the research tells us," says Pickersgill.

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