Language-less Deaf Adults who are Taught ASL

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - the bicameral mind, specifically the subtopic of the mentality of preliterate societies, theories of primitive religion, and vestiges of bicameral mind in preliterate societies.
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Language-less Deaf Adults who are Taught ASL

Post by buff51 »

Referring to Jaynes’ paper “The Evolution of Language in the Late Pleistocene”: “Jaynes traces the development of language from calls, modifiers, and commands, through nouns and the emergence of syntax. He begs us to consider the invention of names, and the dramatic effects that they would have on 'thought', allowing tribe members to be referred to in their absence, and intensifying relationships between members.” --Jonah S. Bossewitch, Pulling on Julian Jaynes' Bootstraps: A Case Study in Contemporary Issues of Scientific Confirmation.

The idea of the evolution of language leading to the evolution of consciousness is uniquely illuminated in the book A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller, in which she meets a deaf man who had never learned language and teaches him to communicate using American Sign Language (ALS).

Most language-less deaf people find it much easier to learn numbers, including addition, subtraction, and multiplication, than to learn sign language. The initial difficulty is to understand that people and things have names. In comparing notes with members of the signing and deaf community who teach sign language, Schaller realized that many language-less deaf people take up to six months before the realization of how names work takes hold. Her friend Ildefonso only took a week. Schaller theorizes that his precocity was due to the fact that as a child he was not restrained from interacting with the rest of the world, even though he was not allowed to go to school. Instead, he was taken all over North America with his migrant worker family. He was also put out on the street to beg. He never really understood what was happening to him, or why, until he learned sign language at the age of 27.

The central point of A Man Without Words is that no progress in learning language can be made until the language-less person realizes the significance and metaphoric value of names. Nouns have to come before verbs.

Minutes after Ildefonso had his epiphany about names he broke down into tears. Schaller says: “He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds.” She continues: “He could see the prison where he had existed alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years.”

Toward the end of A Man Without Words the author is in a room with Ildefonso and four other men all of whom are deaf and language-less. These men all have a simple form of consciousness based on a convoluted narrative mime procedure and a few primitive signs which they have evolved to communicate among themselves. Schaller relates: ‘No one had a name. The older man introduced the youngest with a story of how his mother had died while he was still a baby. In essence, his name was the description the motherless one. It reminded me of the Iliad. Names are secondary or incorporated into a description. Hera is not called “Hera,” but “Hera with the white arms.”’ Shades of Julian Jaynes, who is never mentioned in the book!

The study of language acquisition by congenitally deaf persons would seem to be a fruitful field of research for those trying to understand the origin of consciousness.

Here is a link to a RadioLab podcast entitled “Words that Change the World” in which Schaller explains her experiences with Ildefonso:
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Re: Language-less Deaf Adults who are Taught ASL

Post by Moderator »

Thanks for sharing these resources.

I remember listening to the Radiolab "Words that Change the World" when it first came out and it's a good one, worth listening to again!

It sounds like there are similarities between A Man Without Words and Hellen Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life, in which she describes a similar experience ... I've added it to my to-read list.
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