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Body Language : SEEING VOICES: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks (University of California Press: $15.95; 180 pp.)

September 24, 1989|Lee Dembart

For many years now, I have been an unabashed fan of Oliver Sacks, the British-born, New York neurologist who has written so perceptively about subjects ranging from migraine headaches to his patients' bizarre cases to his own experiences as a recipient of medical treatment.

Unlike most specialists, who tend to be narrowly focused on their specialty, Sacks has never lost his broad view of the world. Reading him is to get both a closeup and a long shot at once. As a result, one cannot read more than a few pages of Sacks without seeing something in a new way. His breadth of understanding and expression seem limitless.

In "Seeing Voices," Sacks turns his attention to the deaf, and, among other things, he ponders at length what happens to people who are born without hearing and who therefore do not acquire language in the conventional way.

Sacks argues persuasively that to be born deaf and never to acquire language or to acquire it only rudimentarily is to be cut off from higher thought, the most distinctively human trait. "Language," he says flatly, "is not just another faculty or skill, it is what makes thought possible, what separates thought from nonthought, what separates the human from the nonhuman."

In the course of this short but highly textured book, Sacks traces his journey "from my previous 'medical' view of deafness (as a 'condition,' a deficit, that had to be treated) to a 'cultural' view of the deaf as forming a community with a complete language and culture of its own." It is a journey well worth taking with him.

Much about the book is eye-opening and mind-opening. Sacks spends a good chunk of the book demonstrating that Sign--the way in which the deaf communicate--is a complete and total language. It is no mere pantomime, and it is capable of expressing complex thoughts and ideas.

"Sign is the equal of speech," he writes, "lending itself equally to the rigorous and the poetic--to philosophical analysis or to making love--indeed, with an ease that is sometimes greater than that of speech."

Sign, he argues, is more natural and more communicative than speech. "While it is able to ascend to the most abstract propositions, to the most generalized reflection of reality, it can also simultaneously evoke a concreteness, a vividness, a realness, an aliveness, that spoken languages, if they ever had, have long since abandoned."

In the section of the book describing the 1988 strike by deaf students at Gallaudet University in Washington, Sacks describes stirring speeches delivered in Sign, poetry readings in Sign, theater in Sign.

At one point he observes, "One has only to watch two people signing to see that signing has a playful quality, a style, quite different from that of speech. Signers tend to improvise, to play with signs, to bring all their humor, their imaginativeness, their personality, into their signing, so that signing is not just the manipulation of symbols according to grammatical rules, but, irreducibly, the voice of the signer--a voice given special force, because it utters itself, so immediately, within the body. One can have or imagine disembodied speech, but one cannot have disembodied Sign. The body and soul of the signer, his unique human identity, are continuously expressed in the act of signing."

I quote Sacks at length because I cannot do justice to his book without doing so. His subject matter is compelling, and his writing is powerful in its understatement. He writes with great clarity and precision--not a wasted word--but with great force. Oh, how I wish all books were so well wrought.

In the century-old debate over whether deaf children should be taught Sign or be forced to learn to speak--after a fashion--Sacks comes down foursquare on the side of Sign, a minority view.

This controversy has some parallels to the debate over bilingual education for non-native speakers of English. What's the point of teaching children in Spanish or Chinese or whatever, one side argues, when they're going to have to speak English in the world? You're perpetually disadvantaging such children.

Similarly, those who oppose instruction in Sign for deaf children argue that they are being prepared to converse only with the deaf and with the few hearing people who know Sign.

Sacks argues that Sign is a natural language, that deaf children--and hearing children--pick it up readily and that failure to acquire it at an early age inhibits the development of brain structures that make possible higher thought.

Forcing pre-lingually deaf children to learn to speak is an extremely difficult task requiring thousands of hours over many years (they have never heard what speech sounds like), which ultimately winds up with the worst of both worlds. They never get the sound right anyway, and in the meantime their mental development has been severely and probably irremediably retarded.

But if they learn Sign first, he says--preferably as a native language from adult signers, just as hearing children learn their first language--their mental development will be normal, the language structures in their brains will be developed and in place and they will be in a much better position to learn to speak later on.

This book will shake your preconceptions about the deaf, about language and about thought. It will tell you many things you never knew and never imagined before. And it will give you an opportunity to spend some time in the mind of Oliver Sacks, one of the finest and most thoughtful writers of our time.

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