A Silent Language

Many years ago, life was hard for Deaf people. Back then, like today, Deaf people could not hear. It could be very hard for them to learn words. With no words, it was hard for them to share their thoughts. They did not learn to read, write, or speak. Many people thought Deaf people were not smart. Deaf people were smart, of course. They just could not hear.

Then, in the early 1800s, a man named Thomas Gallaudet met a Deaf girl. This changed everything for Deaf people.

Thomas was a minister in a church. He helped many people. One day, he went home to see his family. That was the day he met Alice Cogswell.

Alice was the young daughter of a neighbor. She was Deaf. Thomas saw her watching other children play. She did not play. She could not speak to them. She could not share her thoughts. He watched as she sat alone.

Thomas sat next to her. He put his hat on the grass. He picked up a stick. He wrote the word “hat” in the dirt. At first, Alice thought he was playing. She picked up a stick, too. She made lines in the dirt like he did. He tried again. Thomas tapped on his hat. He wrote the word “hat” again. She thought it was funny.

Then, Alice got it! She picked up the hat. She tapped the word in the dirt. She smiled. She knew the lines in the dirt meant “hat.” At nine years old, she finally had her first word. She was so happy!

Alice’s family was happy too. Her dad was a doctor. He told Thomas that he thought Deaf people could learn words. They could learn to read. They could learn to write. With words, they could share their thoughts. He thought Thomas could teach them. He wanted Thomas to start a school for Deaf people.

Thomas liked the idea. But he wanted to learn more first. He went to England. There was a school for Deaf people there. He went, but he did not like it. The Deaf people were taught only how to read lips. He did not think it was a good system. Also, the teachers were not kind.

Thomas went to France. He found a good school for Deaf people there. The Deaf people there learned to read lips. But they also learned to form words with their hands. They called this “sign language.”

Thomas came home to the U.S. with a French teacher. His name was Laurent Clerc. Together, they started a school for Deaf people. Alice went to the school. The school began with eight students. But many Deaf people and their families wanted a school like this. Soon the school had 30 students.

At the school, they started teaching and learning French sign language. Then they formed their own signs. They made American Sign Language. It has changed life for Deaf people. It made their lives better. And it is still used today!

In American Sign Language, people move their hands and fingers. They form letters. There is a sign for every letter. They can also form words. Many words have their own signs.

You can try signing both ways. You can form the letters for the word “eat.” To form an “E,” curl your fingers to touch your palm. Then curl your thumb to your palm, below your fingers. To form an “A,” touch the heel of your hand with your fingers. Stick your thumb up. To form a “T,” make a fist. Then put your thumb between your index and middle fingers. The tip of your thumb will peek out. You have just finger-spelled the word “eat.”

But you can also use the sign for “eat.” To form the sign, put your thumb and fingers together. Then touch your mouth with them. You have just signed the word “eat.”

Signing words is faster than finger-spelling. Most Deaf people finger-spell only names and odd words.

American Sign Language has hundreds of signs. New signs are still being added. There are now signs for “hip-hop” and “blog.”

Other groups are also using sign language. Some parents teach their babies and toddlers to sign. Babies and toddlers are not always able to speak. But they can sign. They can tell their parents what they need.

People who study gorillas also use American Sign Language. Some gorillas can learn to sign. A famous gorilla, Koko, learned more than 1,000 signs. She used them to speak to her trainer.

American Sign Language made life better for Alice. It has since made life better for millions of Deaf people. It has even made life better for a few gorillas, too.