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signing image Talking Hands
by Paul Bacon

Sign language may have been humankind's first form of communication. Some anthropologists believe our early ancestors signed long before developing spoken language, and many educators maintain that it is still the most universal form of human expression. One decade-long study by two California researchers reported recently in USA Today even showed that deaf and hearing children alike may learn to speak faster, and may score higher on future IQ tests if they learn to sign common words at a young age.

If sign language is so fundamental, why is it also so controversial? Following a congressional report in the late 1960s advocating the use of sign language in deaf schools, signing has gained prominence--only to be blamed by some for low reading comprehension scores among the deaf. According to a 1996 survey by Gallaudet University, the average 18-year-old deaf American cannot read above a fourth-grade level, and many teachers of the deaf charge American Sign Language (ASL) with the shortfall, citing its emphasis on visualization and emotive delivery over precise grammatical structure. Because ASL bears little resemblance to English, deaf children who grow up using it must essentially learn English as a second language. ASL proponents argue that sign language is not the cause of the deaf's poor literacy, saying that what is needed is support from an early age for deaf children's language development.

No one source is attributed to the creation of sign language, but its development was greatly aided by a number of pioneering scholars, including Charles Michel de l'Epée, the French priest credited with being the first to organize signs into a bona fide language in the mid-1700's. A few decades later, American theologian Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and a deaf French teacher named Laurent Clerc made legendary strides toward standardizing what would be known as ASL. Their work allowed signing to flourish for a brief period, but they were widely criticized for helping the deaf to remain isolated from society. The oralist movement of the 1860's, and key agreements bolstering oral training methods at an international convocation of deaf educators in 1880 eventually decimated manual teaching programs, as oral education for the deaf took over. Manual teaching all but disappeared until the 1960's when a congressional report found that oral education methods were failing their deaf students.

While ASL may be saddled with some discouraging statistics, it has also been buttressed by recognition from some of America's top schools. As of 1998, a number of Ivy League institutions joined the entire University of California system in offering foreign language credits for students who enroll in ASL.

Paul Bacon is a daily columnist for and a frequent contributor to Thirteen and PBS's online projects, including "The 1900 House" and "Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave." His writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The San Francisco Examiner, Wired, Salon and Might magazine.

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