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A Man Without Words   book icon  
by Susan Schaller (1991)

read: 21 March 2004
rating: [+]
category: uncategorized

I found this book on some book sale shelf at NY Public Library and went for it immediately. Freaks of language interest me and I’ve read a good selection of the “feral children” books that have come out in the last decade or so. I am also a linguistics major and was taught, like many in my classes, that there were very few cases known of people being raised without language. If these people existed, they were often so abused [raised by horrible parents who kept them in closets] that their language learning could not be studied scientifically because there would be so many mitigating factors. Additionally there is a large body of scholarship that suggests that there is a crucial language-learning window for children that is open until children are about five eyars of age, after which they will never be able to have full facility with any language at all. Schaller’s story of a deaf student of hers who was raised without learning English or ASL anecdotally discusses a person she meets without language. Schaller is not a linguist or a scientist, just a concerned ASL translator who noticed a student in an “English for ASL” class who seemed to not be getting it. She befriends him and gradually tries, Annie Sullivan-like, to break through his lack of language and teach him the concept of words as referents and language as a consensual understanding of concepts and words.

Schaller has additional difficulties because her student is anxious to learn English, as well as ASL and is also living in a Spanish-speaking home. The jumble of trials and failures to get the idea across of these multiple languages to a student whose ideas of communication were limited to gestures and pictures is an arduous task. Schaller succeeds to some degree, then leaves to take a job across the country with her then-fiancee [if I recall correctly] and does not meet up with her student until almost a decade later where she happily finds him to be employed, communicative and, best of all, helping teach other people without language how to talk to one another. This story intrigued me, especially with its brief introduction written by Oliver Sacks, and I am curious to know how it was received in the linguistic community since Schaller speaks less than approvingly of her dismissal by at least one academic professor who dismissed her and her work with her student because she was not working on a degree in the field. Her central idea -- that there are many people in the deaf community being raised without language all the time -- is one that is new to me and I wonder how it will resonate within the linguistic field.

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