The Deaf May Be Mute, Not Dumb
Abhijit Sarkar 
This is a community that remains invisible to most hearing persons. Broadly, there are two kinds of deaf people: the pre-lingual deaf and the post lingual deaf. The former are people who were either born deaf or lost hearing very early in their infancy before they could acquire oral language, or simply 'language', as the hearing understand it. The post lingual deaf are those who lose hearing after acquiring oral language. Deaf children of hearing parents, who are lucky to have their deafness detected early and sent to special schools, can learn to communicate in Sign. A deaf child of deaf parents has that very special edge which visuo-gestural baby talk gives her over deaf infants of hearing parents. A deaf child of hearing parents is challenged by unintended and often, unnoticed exclusion from baby talk. It is exclusion very stark and complete; absolute if the child happens to be blind as well.

It is incorrect to think of Sign as a gestural approximation of oral language. The inherent structure of Sign languages affords Signers as much improvisation as the deep structure of oral language makes improvisation part and parcel of oral or written communication. The impression that Sign language is universal is wrong. For instance, American Sign Language, French Sign Language, Aborigine Sign Language and Irish Sign Language are very different from one another. 

Signers, especially if they have learned Sign as a primary language, even think and dream in Sign and in some instances, Sign while thinking audibly or dreaming. A friend, who lost hearing well into adulthood, told me recently that the dreams of the post-lingual deaf are remarkably loud. This must be because the mind remembers sounds and voices from the hearing past.

Since Signers can eavesdrop on other Signers at a peer gathering, there are etiquettes about separate groups avoiding listening in to conversations of others. This is the official line. There must be some nosy parkers among Signers too. How do they pry? Peepdrop? Of course, moral conditioning of one’s eyes to things to be averted is routine politics of daily experience. But what, to hearing persons, must be extra-ordinary about the cultural grounding of Signers’ eyes is that it is sociolinguistic as well. 

There is an interesting parallel at the neurological level — or, isn’t it a convergence? — between Signing and oral language as praxis. Just as oral language users with cerebral impairment — for instance,  lesions in the left hemisphere of the brain following a stroke —  can become victims of aphasia (loss or impairment of speech or ability to understand language or, both), Signing aphasia occurs in similarly afflicted Signers!   

Sign language is as self-contained as oral communication. So much so that experts have reason to argue that Signers and the way they go about their lives constitute a distinctive culture. Of course, proficiency in Signing is most developed in native Signers. There are, broadly, two categories of native Signers: the pre-lingual deaf and the hearing children of deaf parents or parent who are lucky to be exposed to Signing, preferably at the critical age — according to some, between twenty-one months and thirty-six months — when the neuro-psychological genius for acquiring language, whether oral or Sign, blooms like never again in a person’s lifetime.   Hearing signers have the benefit of being bicultural in a way quite different than the simply hearing do. This, of course, is to say nothing of the ability of some hearing impaired people to fluently identify differences in scale and tone by tactile reading of the vibrations.
What is really interesting about Sign language is that, in the course of communicating, it uses all four dimensions: time and space. Linguistic language has only three dimensions at its disposal: time and when written, plane surface, comprising length and breadth. Signing embodies a complex interweaving of three dimensional space, on the one hand  and on the other, time, both in terms of its passage as part of the communicational process and its denotation as a purport of the message-content, inclusive of flashbacks and flashforwards. In its use of space, Signing lays out a splendid repertoire combining the actual act of seeing with zooming — both in and out — in all its filmic richness of topographic denotation and intellectual connotation. Consequently, experts, like the polymath psychiatrist, Oliver Sacks (in his Seeing Voices, Picador), are of the view that Sign has facilities in terms of communicational, conceptual and perceptual felicity which oral language lacks.

There is much more to Signing than is dreamt of in insignate philosophy. ‘Deaf and dumb' is grossly incorrect. ‘Deaf and mute’ is a sight nearer. Somewhat.



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