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The Instruction of Deaf Mutes

by Jennie Eggleston Zimmerman

While I was a teacher in the Illinois Institution for the Deaf and Dumb the following letters were written by some of the pupils. The first was written the day after Thanksgiving, and ran thus:

"DEAR MOTHER: We had Thanks be unto God, no school yesterday, Turkey mince-pies, and many other kinds of fruits."

The day after Christmas a boy wrote: "We had Glory to God in the highest, no school yesterday, and a fine time." What he really meant to say was, that they had a motto in evergreens of "Glory to God in the Highest," and they had also a holiday.

This motto, by the way, got up by the pupils themselves, was striking. It was placed over one of the dining-room doors, and the ceiling being very low it was necessarily put just under it. A single glance sufficed to show the utter impossibility of getting the "Glory" any higher.

The younger pupils write in almost every letter, "There are —— pupils in this institution, —— boys and —— girls. All of the pupils are well, but some are sick." This is English pretty badly broken.

These letters serve to illustrate a remark which Principal Peet of the New York institution made to me not long ago: "The great difficulty in instructing deaf mutes is in teaching them the English language." In this, of course, he had reference to the deaf mutes of our own country, and his statement appears, on its face, paradoxical. That American children should learn at least to read the English language, even when they cannot speak it, seems quite a matter of course. The fact is, however, different. The first disadvantage under which the deaf mute labors is the limited extent to which his mental powers have been developed. This deficiency is attributable to two causes—his deprivation of the immense amount of information to be gained by the sense of hearing, and his want of language. Before an infant, one possessed of all its faculties, has acquired at least an understanding of articulate language, it has but vague and feeble ideas. No clear, distinct conception is shaped in its mind. "Ideas," says M. Marcel in his essay on the Study of Languages, "are not innate: they must be received before they can be communicated. This is so true that native curiosity impels us to listen long before we can speak.... Impression ... must therefore precede expression." Real thought, therefore, it will be seen, grows with the child's acquisition of language—an acquisition which is obtained in the earlier years entirely through the organ of hearing. This principal avenue to the mind is closed to the deaf mute. It is evident, therefore, that, lacking these two fundamental sources of all knowledge, his mental growth is incredibly slower than that of the hearing child. All that can be learned by means of the other senses is, however, learned rapidly, these being quickened and stimulated by the absence of one. Hence, the deaf-mute child of eight or ten years of age often appears as bright and intelligent as his more favored playmate. The latter, however, has a store of knowledge and a fund of thought wholly unknown to the deaf mute.

But it is the want of written language, and the obstacles in the way of its acquirement, which constitute the chief disability of the deaf mute in the attempt to gain an education. If you set a child of seven years of age to learn Greek, requiring him to receive and express his ideas wholly in that language, you would not hope for any very clear expression of those ideas with less than a year's instruction, nor would you expect him to appreciate the delicate beauties of the Odyssey in that length of time. The progress of the deaf mute in any language, even the most simply constructed, is greatly slower than that of the hearing child. The latter is assisted at every step by his previous knowledge of his vernacular. The former does not think in words, as you have done from your earliest recollection. Undertake to do your thinking in a foreign tongue, of which you have but a limited knowledge: the attempt is discouraging. The deaf mute thinks in signs. This, his only vehicle of thought, is a hindrance instead of a help in learning written language, there being no analogy whatever between the two methods of expressing ideas.

With these tremendous odds against him the deaf-mute child is set to the task of acquiring a knowledge of written language. His ideas (in signs) shape themselves in this wise: "Horses, two, run fast." Of course he does not think these words. The idea of a horse, its shape and color, is probably imaged in his mind, or if the horse be not present to his sight, the sign which he uses for that animal comes into his thought. He next touches or grasps or holds up two of his fingers, which he uses on all occasions to express number. Then the idea of running by means of its sign, and lastly that of speed, suggest themselves, the last two, however, being probably closely connected, as in our own minds.

Observe, here, that the order in which the thoughts arrange themselves is different from the manner of those who think by means of words. The main idea is "horse," and he gives it the preference, as the older and more simply constructed languages always did. It is reserved for our cultured and perfected language to describe an object before telling what that object is. Who will say that it is according to philosophical principles that we say, "A fine large red apple," instead of "An apple, fine, red, large"? A deaf-mute boy tells me that he saw two dogs fighting yesterday. He explains it in signs in this manner: "Dogs, two, fight; first, second ear bit, blood much. Second ran, hid; saw yesterday, I." Thus the fact is arranged in his mind. Let him attempt to translate—for it is nothing but translation—this simple statement into English. The perplexity which first seizes the hapless school-boy over his "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" is nothing to it. Like him, he must go hunting, as if for a needle in a haystack, for the word to put first. It is the last idea in his sign-sentence. Then he slowly learns to pick out the words and arrange them in English order—an order, as I said before, not founded on philosophical principles, but in most instances wholly arbitrary. This is by no means an easy task. Years of training do not ensure him against ludicrous lapses. A fair percentage of the whole number educated learn to construct sentences with tolerable accuracy; a smaller percentage of these acquire fluency, precision and, in some rare instances, grace of expression; but a large proportion never become good English scholars.

The method of beginning their instruction is by means of simple familiar objects, or, where these cannot be obtained, illustrations of them. A picture of a horse is placed, at one end of the teacher's blackboard. Instantly two fingers of each hand go up to the top of each little head. If it were a picture of an animal with longer ears, each would make an ass of himself. So far so good, only they do not know the name of this animal, familiar as they are with him. The teacher writes the name under the picture. The article "A" is also written, which, though it puzzles them, they must take on trust. It cannot be explained at this stage. The teacher then holds up an ear of corn. Of course they know that very well, and make the sign for it, shelling the fore finger. It is then laid upon the opposite end of the blackboard, and its name written under it. A short pause, with a glance first at the horse and then at the corn, soon brings out the sign for "eats," which is written in its proper place, and the sentence is complete. The little "ignorants," as they are dubbed by the older pupils, are then plunged head and ears into the task of learning to form the written characters as well as the construction of sentences. It is setting foot in an unexplored wilderness. No ray of light penetrates the darkness of that wilderness save the tiny torch just placed in their hands.

Mr. Isaac Lewis Peet, principal of the New York institution, before referred to in this paper, has lately been preparing a textbook for the use of deaf-mute instructors, which promises to be of great value. It reduces the whole of the earlier stages of instruction to a perfected system, by which each part of speech, with the various moods and tenses of the verbs, the different cases of nouns, etc., is brought out in successive stages entirely by means of sentences. A few illustrations will suffice to show the scope of the work, which promises to be of much value also in the ordinary school-room, for which it is likewise designed by the author. An object, such as a pitcher, is placed on the teacher's desk. A pupil is required to come forward and touch it. The teacher then asks the question, writing it upon the blackboard or spelling it upon his fingers, "What did John do?" Answer, "He touched the pitcher." A change from a boy to a girl brings out another pronoun; a change of objects, another noun; a change of actions, another verb.

In this way, by gradual, systematic stages, the language is taught by actual and constant use, the teacher doing away entirely with signs in the school-room. This is an end constantly aimed at in deaf-mute instruction, as it forces the pupils to use language instead of signs to express their thoughts. By constant effort at first, and constant practice, words gradually take the place of signs in their modes of thought, though not perhaps entirely.

Objective ideas are readily acquired by deaf mutes, their perceptive faculties being usually keen and quick. Abstract subjects are less readily apprehended, and sometimes cause great surprise. One Sunday morning Dr. Gillett, principal of the Illinois institution, had for the Scripture lesson in the chapel the "Resurrection." When he had made it plain and simple for the comprehension of the new pupils, some of the ideas, brought out by the lesson caused great astonishment, and even consternation among them. The little fellows shook their heads in utter skepticism at the thought of themselves dying.

"I'm not going to die," said one. "Sick people die: I'm well and strong;" standing on his feet and shaking his arms in attestation of the fact.

"But you will be sick some time," said Dr. G., "and you will have to die."

But they did not believe him in the least. The next morning one little fellow met the principal and said, "You said yesterday I was going to die: well, here I am, and I ain't dead yet."

On Monday morning, when they assembled in school, they were still full of the new ideas. "Dr. Gillett had said they all had to die: would they, truly?" they asked me. I could only confirm the statement. Whereupon they all began drawing graves, tombstones, weeping willows, and all such funereal paraphernalia upon the blackboards. It was a solemn scene, save for my own irrepressible laughter, which they thought very unaccountable when they learned that I must suffer a like fate. I explained as cheerfully as I could the delights of going to heaven, whereupon one boy burst into tears, saying he did not want to go to heaven: he would rather go home and see his mother.

One asked if we should go to heaven in the cars. I said I had been told that we should go through the air, perhaps fly there. A little girl immediately held up a wood-cut of a vulture, saying, "Ugly thing! I don't want to be one." A boy whose new skates lay spoiling for the ice in his trunk asked if he could skate there. Not having quite the faith of the author of Gates Ajar, I could not answer "Yes" unhesitatingly. A girl asked if fishes went to heaven. I answered "No." "Where, then?" I replied that we ate the fishes, but was greatly troubled afterward lest she should confound me with the question, "What becomes of the snakes?"

In addition to the ordinary one-hand alphabet, the only one commonly used by deaf mutes, there are five others. One of these is the two-hand alphabet, sometimes used by hearing children at school. It is clumsy and inconvenient, however. A second is made by the arms alone. Still a third is formed by means of the body and arms also, in various positions, to represent the different letters, and is used in signaling at a distance. It is not often learned by deaf mutes, however. A fourth is made entirely with the feet. But the most curious of all is the facial or expression alphabet. Various emotions and passions expressed on the face represent, by means of their initial letters, the letters of the alphabet. Thus, A is indicated by an expression of avarice, B by boldness, C by curiosity, D by devotion, etc. This alphabet is sometimes so admirably rendered that words can easily be spelled by means of it by the spectators.

Deaf mutes also excel in pantomime. A large amount of gesture and pantomime is naturally employed in their conversation, and it thus becomes easy to train them to perform pantomimic plays. I have seen one young man, a deaf mute, whose narration in this manner of a hunter who made a pair of buckskin breeches, hung them up during the summer, drew them on when the rainy season came on, and found a hornet's nest within, was interpreted amid roars of laughter. Thus told, it was far more vivid than words could have possibly made it, and infinitely more amusing.

The sign-language, growing slowly from natural signs—i.e., signs representing the shape, quality or use of objects, or the action expressed by verbs—has at length become a perfected system. This language is the same throughout Europe and America, so that deaf mutes from any country of Christendom who have acquired the regular system can readily communicate with each other, however diverse their nationality. Being formed from analogy, many of the signs are exceedingly expressive. Thus, the sign for "headache" is made by darting the two forefingers toward each other just in front of the forehead. The sign for "summer" is drawing the curved forefinger across the brow, as if wiping off the sweat. "Heat," or rather "hotness," is expressed by blowing with open mouth into the hand, and then shaking it suddenly as if burned. "Flame" and "fire" are represented by a quivering, upward motion of all the fingers. The memory of the ancient ruffled shirt of our forefathers is perpetuated in the sign for "genteel," "gentility" or "fine." It is the whole open hand, with fingers pointing upward, shaken in front of the breast. "Gentleman" and "lady" are expressed by the signs for "man" (the hat-brim) and "woman" (the bonnet-string), followed by the ruffled-shirt sign. The sign for "Jesus" is doubtless the most tender and touching in the whole language. It is made by touching the palm of each hand in succession with the middle finger of the other. This represents the print of the nails. The name "Jesus" itself does not convey so pathetic and expressive a meaning as does this sign.

Hearing persons who understand the sign-language sometimes find it exceedingly convenient as a means of communicating when they wish to be private, I remember an amusing incident occurring at a festival which I attended while teaching in the Illinois institution. Another teacher and myself sat apart, surrounded by entire strangers. Near by stood a lady in a gorgeous green silk dress, with many gaudy accessories. My companion remarked in signs to me upon her striking costume. I replied in like manner, expressing my appreciation of so magnificent a proportion of apple-green silk. There was a great deal of lady, but a great deal more of dress.

"See them dummies, Jake," she remarked to her husband at her side, whose dazzling expanse of bright-figured velvet waistcoat and massive gold chain was in admirable keeping with his wife's attire. It was a landscape, begging the word, after Turner's own heart. "Them's two dummies from the asylum, I know," she continued. "Let's watch 'em make signs." And she gazed upon us from the serene heights of green sward with an amused, patronizing smile.

We dared not laugh. Dummies we had been dubbed, and dummies we must remain to the end of the scene. Were ever mortals in such a fix? We talked them over well, however, while suffering tortures from our pent-up emotions.

"That there one's rayther good-looking," ventured the proprietor of the velvet and gold.

"Not so mighty, either," said his wife, bridling. "Face is too chalky-like, and the other one is too fat." This was near being the death of us both, as the two critics together would have turned the scale at near five hundred. Consternation seized us just then, however, as we saw a fellow-teacher approaching us who would be sure to address us in spoken language and reveal us as two cheats. Hastily retreating from the scene, we made our way to an anteroom, where it was not considered a sin to laugh.

The instruction of deaf mutes in articulate speech has of late years attracted considerable attention in both Europe and America. In some of the European schools, in the Clark Institute at Northampton, Massachusetts, and in a few of our State institutions it is brought to great perfection. There are also special schools for this system of teaching in most of our large cities. The majority of pupils in these schools converse with ease, and understand readily what is said to them by means of the motion of the lips. The Clark Institute at Northampton, already referred to, under the conduct of Miss Harriet Rogers, is the largest and most widely known of the schools for this special method of instruction in this country. This is not a State institution, but one endowed by the munificence of a private gentleman, and consequently subject to none of the restrictions imposed on the public institutions. Of course, only the most promising pupils are sent there, and from these a careful selection is made, by which means the highest possible success is ensured. Some of the State institutions, however, burdened as they are with a large and unassorted mass of pupils, have made most encouraging progress in this direction. Of these, one of the most successful is the Illinois institution. In its last published report the correspondence between the principal and the parents of those pupils who have been taught by this method is given, showing the utmost satisfaction at the progress made and results attained.

Deaf mutes are divided into two classes—viz., entire mutes and semi-mutes. The first comprises those who either have been born deaf or have become so at so early an age as to have retained no knowledge of articulate speech. The second class embraces those who have lost their hearing after attaining such an age as still to be able to talk. Speech is more easily and perfectly learned if the pupil has learned to read before the loss of hearing. A knowledge of the sounds and powers of the letters enables him to acquire the pronunciation of new words with much greater facility than would be otherwise possible, giving him a foundation on which to build his acquisition of spoken language. To this last class, semi-mutes, articulation is invaluable, enabling them to pursue their education with less difficulty, and also to retain their power of communication with the outside world. In regard to entire mutes, the utility of the accomplishment is seriously questioned by some experienced educators. The fact must be admitted that, while a much larger number of entire mutes can be taught to converse intelligently and agreeably than would be imagined by those unacquainted with the results obtained, the great mass of the deaf and dumb must still be instructed wholly by means of written language. In most instances, to ensure success, instruction should be begun at a very much earlier age than it is possible to receive them into school, and constantly practiced by all who hold communication with the pupil, doing away entirely with the habit of using signs. It also requires pupils of bright, quick mind, keen perceptive faculties, and an amount of intelligence and perseverance on the part of the parents not found in the average parent of deaf mutes; for it is well known that a very large proportion of deaf mutes come from the poorer and more illiterate classes. This is mainly attributable to the fact that by far the larger number lose their hearing in infancy or early childhood through disease—scarlet fever, measles and diphtheria being probably the most frequent causes of deafness. Among those able to give skillful nursing and to obtain good medical aid the number of cases resulting in deafness is reduced to a minimum. Accidents, too, causing deafness, occur more frequently among those unable to give their children proper care. Congenital deafness is also probably greater among the laboring classes, and is undoubtedly due to similar causes.

The methods used in the teaching of articulation form a subject of much interest. The system has materially changed within the past few years. The first step to be taken is to convey a knowledge of the powers of the consonants and sounds of the vowels. Formerly, this was done by what was called the "imitation method." The letter H was usually the point of attack, the aspirate being the simplest of all the powers of the letters. The teacher, holding up the hand of the pupil, makes the aspirate by breathing upon his palm. This is soon imitated, and thus a starting-point is gained. The feeling produced upon the hand is the method of giving him an idea of the powers of the consonants. A later and better system is that called "visible speech." This is a system of symbols representing positions of the mouth and tongue and all the organs of speech, and if the pupil does what the symbols direct he cannot help giving the powers of the letters correctly. By this method a more distinct and perfect articulation is gained, with one-half the labor of the other method. As fast as the powers of the letters are learned, the spelling of words is undertaken. Many words are pronounced perfectly after a few trials: others, however, often defy the most strenuous and persevering effort.

Entire mutes who undertake articulation are like hearing children endeavoring to keep up the full curriculum of a modern school and pursue the study of music in addition: the ordinary studies demand all the energies of the child. Articulation consumes much time and strength. Exceptional cases are of course to be found which are indeed a triumph of culture, but the great mass of the deaf and dumb must always be content with written language.

Articulation is also exceedingly trying to the unused or long-disused throat and lungs. In this the teachers are likewise sufferers. The tax upon the vocal organs is necessarily much greater than that in ordinary speaking schools. But the disuse of the vocal organs in articulate speech does not indicate that they are wholly unused. A lady visiting an institution for the deaf and dumb a few years ago poetically called the pupils the "children of silence." Considering the tremendous volume of noise they are able to keep up with both feet and throat, the title is amusingly inappropriate. A deaf-and-dumb institution is the noisiest place in the world.

In summing up the results usually attained, let no discontented taxpayer grumble at the large outlays annually made in behalf of the deaf and dumb. If they learned absolutely nothing in the school-room, the intelligence they gain by contact with each other, by the lectures in signs, by intercourse with teachers, and the regular and systematic physical habits acquired, are of untold value. Add to this a tolerable acquaintance with the common English branches, such as reading, writing, arithmetic—one of their most useful acquirements—geography and history, and we have an amount of education which is of incalculable value.