The Language of Light: A History of Silent Voices

Book Review:

The Language of Light: A History of Silent Voices (2017) by Gerald Shea

Yale University Press. New Haven.

By Jean F. Andrews

This is a history of sign language – “the language of light” – and how Deaf people have fought for centuries for the right to use their language. The controversy of signing versus oralism has existed since the early days, despite the fact that Deaf and hearing bilingual teams of teachers and administrators started the Deaf schools in France – and later in the U.S. – with Sign as the primary language of instruction.

Language of LightThe author – a corporate and international lawyer by training – who has lived with a significant hearing loss, since the age of 6 brings a combined background of legal training and a personal perspective. He uncovered many original letters of early teachers in France and the U.S., providing the reader with new discoveries.

Chapter 9 on Helen Keller’s early language learning is a big surprise. The author describes how Ms. Keller acquired language as a child, that differs from previous writings. Of course, the author has had the benefit of 40 years of psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research on language acquisition, as well as studies on identity-sociology. Nonetheless, his analysis of Helen’s early language learning is a provocative-must-read for teachers and parents of Deaf and Deafblind children.

His fluent writing moves briskly, as he describes the history of sign language in Europe and the U.S. He provides an overview of society’s conflicted attitudes toward Sign. He spotlights A.G. Bell, and how he used his fortune to attempt to suppress sign language, close Deaf schools, and prevent marriage between Deaf couples.

In a lawyerly fashion, he presents a balanced case, arguing for the benefits and drawbacks of the cochlear implant. In the end, though, he takes a stand. He argues convincingly that sign language is a human right and it should not be denied to Deaf children. Few of us would disagree with such injustice.

But an interesting development is occurring in deaf education today. That is, more parents want their children to have both, the cochlear implant and sign language, so their child can become bilingual and bimodal. And recent research on language outcomes is promising.

Jean F. Andrews, Ph.D. is a Reading Specialist and Professor Emerita at the Dept of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education of Lamar University.

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