Seeing Voices

This is the title of a book by Oliver Sacks (1989) about the history of deaf people learning to communicate.

I first became interested in the topic when a former student rang me up: she had found herself teaching the deaf without any training, and she asked me what Linguistics had to offer on the subject. I had just happened to read an article in one of the journals, which supported the use of sign language, rather than the received wisdom of the time, which insisted on deaf people trying to learn to speak and lip read. While this worked for some people, many deaf learners were cognitively impaired because they never learned any full language. Sign language apparently offered full cognitive development because it is a complete language, one which uses the eyes rather than the ears for communication. (Hence Sacks’s title Seeing Voices.)

My former student indignantly rejected my information – this was in the eighties and the deaf community was then still fighting to get Sign recognised as a language. They have now won that battle and Sign is internationally recognised as a full language equal to French, English or Chinese.

I am lucky enough to live round the corner from the Deaf Cultural Centre for the Midlands, which offers not only facilities for the deaf but the most delicious lunches and snacks for the wider community. A friend and I try to lunch there once a week, and we have enjoyed being taught a bit of Sign by the deaf people using and working in the Centre. (Our vocabulary consists entirely of words for food – fish and chips, sausage rolls, coffee etc.)

This very pleasant experience made me wonder how Sign works as a language. It is clear from observing deaf people in the Centre that some deaf people are completely fluent in using Sign. The hearing staff have learned Sign and interpret for me with deaf people as they would interpret in any language. I had fantasies about signing up for classes, but realised at my age I would be too slow and forgetful to make much progress.

Luckily, a friend in the community has lent me the Dictionary of British Sign Language / English first published in 1992 by the British Deaf Association. This is a huge brick of a book, most of which is taken up with explanations and descriptions of the words in Sign, using photos to show what they look like. The introduction, however, gives a very clear description of how the language works and I look forward to looking into Sign in greater depth.

(My friends and I are still pursuing Pragmatics, which has turned out to be quite hard but very illuminating.)



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