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Sign Language History

Sign language is very old. From earliest recorded history, gestures have been employed for communication between groups of dissimilar languages and cultures. The development of the formalized language of signs, however, has been gradual, with the first attempt to do so occurring in the latter part of the 16th century.

Until the 16th century, the deaf were considered uneducable. They were scorned, reviled and even feared. They were thought to be incapable of reasoning or of having ideas.

In the 16th century, an Italian physician, Girolamo Cardano, stated that the hearing of words was not necessary for the understanding of ideas. He elaborated a code for teaching the deaf, but it was never put into use. However, his ideas paved the way for dispelling the attitude that the deaf were incapable of learning.

It was in Spain that the first successful attempts to educate the deaf were made. A Spanish Monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, succeeded in educating the deaf children of several noble Spanish families so that they were declared legally qualified to inherit their families' estates. Apparently, Ponce de Leon taught these children to read and write and later to speak.

Still later, Juan Martin Pablo Bonet wrote a book on education of the deaf, Simplification of the Letters and Art of Teaching Deaf Mutes. He advocated teaching a one-handed manual alphabet as the first step in educating a deaf child. This manual alphabet is essentially the same as is used today.

It was in France and Germany, however, that public education of the deaf began. It was also in those countries that the methods argument began. In France, Abbe Charles de L'Eppe founded the first public school for the deaf. Besides being considered the father of public education of the deaf, he is also considered the father of the language of signs.

Abbe de L'Eppe was convinced that the language of signs was the natural language of deaf people and that their education should be based on it. But he also recognized that the crude signs used by deaf people of that day were too rudimentary to be used as an educational tool. So he set himself to refining and developing this language of signs into a full language. Our present day sign language is derived from his system.

At the death of Abbe de L'Eppe, Abbe Sicard became the head of the National Institution in Paris, a school for the deaf that had been founded by Abbe de L'Eppe. Abbe Sicard continued the method of manual communication, derived as it was from both the Spanish and the French.

In Germany, however, Samuel Heinicke was originating what eventually came to be known as the German method. In brief, it was the oral method of teaching a deaf child through speech and speechreading, with sign language absolutely forbidden. This started a controversy that persists to this day.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a minister. He became the developer of American education of the deaf, founder of the first school for the deaf in this country, and the man for whom Gallaudet College, the only college for the deaf in the world, was named.

Gallaudet was approached by Dr. Mason Cogswell, who had a deaf daughter, Alice. Dr. Cogswell asked Gallaudet to journey to Europe and study the methods developed there to teach the deaf. He journeyed to England first to study their methods, meaning to combine the best of both methods, oral and manual, but this was unacceptable to the English educators he contacted. They wished him to use ONLY their methods. About this time, Abbe Sicard arrived on a lecture tour in London with two of his most famous pupils. Gallaudet was so impressed by the demonstrations that he abandoned his negotiations with the English and went to Paris to study with Sicard. After studying with Sicard for a few months, Gallaudet returned to America, bringing with him Laurent Clerc.

Dr. Gallaudet founded, in l817, the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States which is the American School for the Deaf - now located in West Hartford, Connecticut, and served as the first head of that school. With the help of Clerc, whom he had brought back to the states to become the first deaf teacher of the deaf in America, Gallaudet made use of the language of signs and the manual alphabet that he had seen used in France. This same method of communication, with added variations, is still used in America today.

Source: Historical background, Dr. Stephen P. Quigley, University of Illinois.
Additional information from An Introductory Course in Manual Communication
by Barbara Babbini Brasel.