Dumb Mouths

DUMB MOUTHS.

In his work of interpreting nature, man has put tongues into a good many dumb mouths, and extracted from them surprising utterances. The chemist listens to revelations whose significance is, as yet, only partly discernible. The geologist, breaking stones by the wayside, applies his ear to a more instructive shell than the one that murmurs of its ocean home. And other interpreters are similarly busy, fitting, with more or less ability, tongues into orifices previously silent. Yet, strangely enough, the dumb mouths of our species may be rendered almost eloquent, while less is known of the processes adopted in the workshops where true human tongues are found for them.

It is not a very long time since workshops of this kind were instituted. Before their establishment, deaf-born children grew up amongst hearing playmates, like the tare in the midst of good grain, which it resembled in its early stages, but from which further growth showed its dissimilarity.

A child, who hears, very soon imitates the sounds made to him by his nurse and others. From finding that particular sounds are made on particular occasions, he learns to connect meanings with words. By and by, as his stock of words and phrases increases, he becomes aware of increasing resemblances betwixt things. More hidden resemblances are pointed out to him, and gradually he comes to find that the limited experience of his own life serves as a set of recesses, into which language fitting keys, he can wander at will among things present, past, and future, and, practically, have the benefit of all men’s thoughts.

Not so with the deaf-born child. Emotions excited in him by their proper stimulants pass over his mind like ripples on a lake, but are confined within himself by the boundary line, so to speak, of his deafness. Like winds blowing where they list, moods and impulses sweep across him, but he cannot tell whence they come nor trace whither they go. He cannot compare sensations with other children, and thus be drilled into certain prevalent habits of thought, according to which the people round about him live and move and have their being. His deafness is like an envelope that entirely wraps up his mind, so that language, which is the instrument whereby the minds of persons who hear correspond with one another, has no effect on him.

An ingenious writer represents the human body as a tenement occupied temporarily by a soul which will vacate the premises on certain mishaps occurring. He describes his clay investment as “the house I live in.” One might not inappropriately conceive of a deaf mute as the inmate of a prison rather than a dwelling-house rightly so called. From the grated window of his tower he looks out on life, and sees a perplexing phantasmagoria, but what it is all about he has no more notion than he has of how the tower he is in came to be there, or how he came to be in it.

How to put a tongue into the poor dumb mouth of a human being thus conditioned, is one of that bright cluster of discoveries that blaze away like stars right above our own times. Occasionally, during centuries back, some intellect of first magnitude would shut itself up with a deaf and dumb child, as the prophet shut himself up in his chamber with the dead son of his hostess, and in due time present to the world an awakened intelligence with animation in its looks, and a story of its own to tell—whereat the world marvelled greatly, and went its way. But clever men did all sorts of freaks in those times.

To sit down, however, steadily, and make it the business of one’s life, one’s mission — in fact, having gathered together into a school a number of deaf mute children, to do by them, in such sort as might be, what the regular schoolmasters did for other children — was a stretch of caprice they did not venture upon. Instances of tamed leopards had been heard of, but nobody on that account thought of civilising the desert. Why, then, because sometimes single mutes had been made rational, should outrageous eccentricity insist on trying it on with an assemblage of them?

Happily the case is altered now. Most of the very large towns in England possess schools of this kind, the managers of which are but too glad to make their methods known. Let us suppose we have just entered one.

We are struck in a moment by the extraordinary quietness that prevails. This, at first, has a somewhat chilling effect, but the bright faces round about soon dissipate the feeling. There is abundance of activity and bustle, too, for that matter, but the ominous absence of all speech keeps obtrusively in recollection that we come to see deaf mute children.

Our attention is first directed to two little boys, who have been at school a week. They are of the ages respectively of seven and nine years. We find that conductors of this kind of school (the conductors of this particular school, at any rate) have their own notions as to bending of twigs early in the hope of securing upright growth — into which notions we cannot enter here.

The nine years’ pupil, on the ground of his years, is thought to promise best. As yet, however, his main activity displays itself in watching new faces that enter the school. On all such he keeps a close eye. His seven years’ co-mate parcels out with more equality his attention among all the various parties who are in the room, children, teachers, and strangers, glancing over all and sundry with the restlessness of a ferret, or a revolving light on its tower. It would task a good imagination to find out the thoughts that hide, like truth in her secluded well, at the bottom of that brisk, incessant eye.

Some pupils of the same class, who have been a few mouths under instruction, can write names of common things. We are told to show some object. We point to our hat, the three letters composing which word a little girl immediately writes on her slate, and then, with evident pride, hitches herself erect on her seat, and smartly pats the top of her head, to indicate that the three letters refer to the object worn there. She then leans forward and touches it in our hand.

“Here, then,” observes the master, prosing a little, “is a manifest beginning, an undoubted connection established betwixt a set of meaningless characters called letters, and certain meanings which it is agreed these marks shall represent. For in this power of associating thought with things (in the present case with written characters), lies our ability to apprehend what is in the minds of other people, and generally to derive all those advantages which the use of speech brings. The fact is, that speech, as we possess it, is so perfect an instrument, that, like sunlight performing its multiplicity of offices, we cease to look on it as a piece of mechanism. It rather, like one of our limbs, seems an inseparable part of us, the absence of which is simply inconceivable till it occurs.”

“Quite true,” we observe, not clearly seeing his drift, arid very much at a loss for some suitable remark.

“You remember,” he continues, “Dean Swift’s humorous story of the philosophers in Laputa, who carried about boxes of pebbles, selections of which, grouped according to known patterns, formed sentences and superseded speech. Two persons talking, merely unslung their pebble-boxes, searched among the contents for certain small stones, which they arranged so as to indicate whatever they wished to say, and then, having finished their conversation, shut up and trudged on again; like two ships at sea signalling, or may I not say like two ordinary human beings whose memories are their pebble-boxes, and for whom spoken words serve as the pebbles.”

“Very ingenious,” we admit, conceiving that such an admission on our part is looked for.

“Over here,” proceeds our informant, going to another part of the schoolroom, ” are the more advanced pupils. Their pebble-boxes, you perceive, are getting filled. The little girl we saw just knew some names of common things. She can, so to speak, select a particular pebble to represent a particular object. But all her pebbles are of one kind. In this class, however, you see round pebbles that designate things, square pebbles that show qualities, triangular that denote actions; and pebbles of various other shapes, sizes, and colours, necessary to be used on occasions sure to arise. In drilling the children into the use of such pebbles — or as this is not Laputa, but an English schoolroom — of common English words, lies our work.”

“I see well enough how you begin,” we remark, desiring now to select information, rather than have it in the lump; “but how with something that you cannot show? How, for instance, would you inform them that tea grows in China?”

“They see the country round about them. They know, or can be made to know, that by continuous walking, or progression after some other mode—as riding or sailing—they still come to some new place, colder or hotter than where they are, with clear or clouded skies, with plants many or few, and otherwise with differences from what is around them, which may be easily enough explained. Of varying heat and cold they have experience, of changes of weather, of herbage stunted or luxuriant, &c.

Alterations of such nature they see or feel as they walk about, or as the seasons move on. China, then, I say to them, is a place to which after sailing many many days a ship comes. Here is the ship’s track on the map. The men and women there dress according to this pattern which I show. The skies the people see are so and so. Their fields are thus and thus. Their houses are built in this style. In that land the tea we use is got. The fact of tea being the leaf of a plant, prepared after such and such a fashion, can form no difficulty which you cannot easily conceive removed by reference to plants within reach.”

“Analogy, then,” we observe, satisfied with our light, “is your main dependence. You show how the things and persons they know resemble or differ from those you desire to teach them about. Now, what do you do with all these children when they grow up?”

“Oh, as to that,” he adds, in a changed voice, as if dismounted from his hobby, which was evidently the schoolwork, ” they are fit for most of the common handicraft employments by which men make a living. It is sometimes difficult to get one apprenticed, undoubtedly; but a fair proportion of them afterwards do well, and support themselves creditably.”

“Deaf persons are very eccentric, are they not?” we inquire.

“As how?” he asks.

“I have heard very curious stories of them,” we reply, “as to their inquisitiveness, and odd ways they take to gratify it. I have been told, too, that they prefer their condition, and would rather not be made to hear.”

“Ask one of them,” observes our Mentor.

The question is written— “Whether would yon be made able to hear or remain deaf?” In a moment the boy underlines the words — able to hear. “The fact is,” the master proceeds improving the subject, “that deaf human beings are very similar to others, liking what people commonly like, and disliking what is commonly thought irksome. Now and then odd tastes may show themselves, but whatever is odd — whatever departs from the common standard by which we regulate preferences and aversions — is exceptional. If a deaf person prefers deafness, his case, to say the least of it, is singular. I never knew or heard of an instance of the kind, and can more easily imagine a mistake as to the spirit (for deaf persons are not devoid of drollery), in which a preference of the sort was expressed, than gravely accept your statement that in a deaf person taste so manifested itself as a fact to be reasoned from.”

“What number of persons now in all England may be deaf and dumb?”

“Speaking in round numbers, ten thousand.”

Surely a class of schools which essays to put into ten thousand poor dumb mouths an available substitute for the speech we with reason prize so much, constitutes a section of England’s educational apparatus deserving proper recognition. May its work prosper!


Author:John Clyne.

Cover: Elizabeth Shippen Green

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