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September 3, 2004

Deaf Talkabout: Learning the language of the world

From: Belfast Telegraph (subscription), UK - Sep 3, 2004

by Bob McCullogh

03 September 2004

Jonathan Ree, a former academic at Middlesex University, and now a freelance writer, is regarded as a leading critic of the concept of a Deaf Nation.

As a hearing man with a special interest in deaf people, and author of 'I see a Voice, a Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses', Professor Ree was invited to give one of the lectures at the BDA congress. He kindly sent me a copy of his speech and allowed me to interview him by e-mail.

Deaf scholars argue that deaf education never recovered from the infamous edict of Milan in 1880 when educators from all over Europe met and decided to ban sign language in all schools for the deaf. I asked Jonathan if it was really possible to be dogmatic about the effects achieved by those early educators and the claims they made for the superiority of sign language.

He said that it was a terrible thing to prevent signs being used in deaf schools, but the truth is that the policy existed before Milan and the historian in him feels its significance has been overemphasised. He also thinks that the question of oralism vs manualism is much more complicated than many are prepared to admit.

He said his basic principle is that to learn a language is to learn a world and everybody should be encouraged to be multilingual. "Everyone, including the deaf, should be encouraged to learn lots of what I call mainstream languages such as English, Chinese, or Spanish. They have a history and, as collective works of art, they have been improved over dozens, indeed hundreds of generations.

"No signer should be offended at the thought that no sign language has the same kind of sophistication as any of the mainstream languages. It's not that there's something intrinsically inferior about sign language, just that none of them has much of a history, and none has a well-established writing system either."

Jonathan says that there were some fine people in the oralist movement and thinks they had some good points, especially when it comes to educating deaf children with some residual hearing. It seems to him as bad to prevent deaf children from learning mainstream languages as to prevent them from learning to sign.

At Congress, Jonathan spoke out against the idea of a deaf nation and I asked him if we are not an underclass in the sense that our education in general is much below that of the hearing. I told him of my conviction that our first priority is not recognition of sign language but an emphasis on equality of education.

And instead of broadcasting sign language as the answer to all our problems, it might help to regard deaf people, like the hearing, as differing in qualities of intelligence and incentive.

Jonathan agreed with what I said except that he's almost as unhappy with the word 'underclass' as with 'nation' or 'ethnic group'.

He says the deaf are sociologically quite different from any other kind of groups: "They really are in a class of their own. One aspect of what makes them special is that their histories, both collective and individual, are so thoroughly bound up with their schooling."

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