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Must language be verbal? is it necessarily sequential? Or is the sequential nature of spoken English (or Icelandic or Japanese) a product of the temporal order inherent in speaking and hearing? Could a fully expressive non-temporal language exist? what would it look like?
In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks takes us on a journey to the language of Sign and introduces us to people who speak with their hands, and hear with their eyes. Sign languages (for they occur in every country) are complete languages with the same potential, the same range of expressive possibilities as any spoken language. Sacks writes mostly of American Sign Language (ASL) for this is the one he contacts in his story, and calls it simply, Sign. Sign is not a copy of any spoken language, for it draws on, and enhances, the visual skills of native signers in a way that speech does not: babies begin to sign at four months, long before their hearing cohort can control the complex muscles of speech; native signers often show enhanced visual and spatial skills, in one study Deaf children copied chinese ideograms almost perfectly (far in advance of their hearing chinese counterparts).
Hearing people tend to think of being blind as a far worse predicament than being deaf, but to the child born deaf, the whole world of communication can be inaccessible. A special kind of tragedy waits for the deaf child of non-signing parents, as they cannot learn their own native language at home. Sadly, many parents and teachers don't understand the difference between spoken and visual language, and some even restrict the access of deaf children to the one stepping stone that can bring them the most rapid and enhancing communication. Sign is the native language of the visual being, and Sacks takes us to their world, the world of the Deaf (not small-d deaf, but Deaf), a people with their own Signed poetry, jokes, art and culture, and their own tragic and inspiring history as they struggled against the prejudices of people who saw them (and often still see them) as damaged hearing people, rather than a fully functioning community, with their own language and abilities, equal, but different.
For Cognitive Science, other ways of being are invaluable for finding out and understanding the universals of cognition. Sacks shows us the similarities and differences between the non-deaf and the Deaf, the nature of language, and its lessons for the way innate capabilities interact with the environment in the development of a child.
As we read Sacks words, we begin to appreciate how the inherent visual component of Sign allows grammar to be spatial, not sequential, and that to force a deaf child to learn English as a first language would be like forcing a hearing child to see with her ears, and sign with her voice. 9/3/97