How Deaf People Think

deaf symbolToday I found out how deaf people think in terms of their “inner voice”.  It turns out, this varies somewhat from deaf person to deaf person, depending on their level of deafness and vocal training.

Those who were born completely deaf and only learned sign language will, not surprisingly, think in sign language.  What is surprising is those who were born completely deaf but learn to speak through vocal training will occasionally think not only in the particular sign language that they know, but also will sometimes think in the vocal language they learned, with their brains coming up with how the vocal language sounds.  Primarily though, most completely deaf people think in sign language.  Similar to how an “inner voice” of a hearing person is experienced in one’s own voice, a completely deaf person sees or, more aptly, feels themselves signing in their head as they “talk” in their heads.

For those deaf people who are not completely deaf or wear devices to allow them to hear somewhat, they will often experience more vocal language in their “inner voice” in proportion to how much they can hear.

Interestingly, deafness is significantly more serious than blindness in terms of the effect it can have on the brain.  This isn’t because deaf people’s brains are different than hearing people, in terms of mental capacity or the like;  rather, it is because of how integral language is to how our brain functions.   To be clear, “language” here not only refers to spoken languages, but also to sign language.  It is simply important that the brain have some form of language it can fully comprehend and can turn into an inner voice to drive thought.

Recent research has shown that language is integral in such brain functions as memory, abstract thinking, and, fascinatingly, self-awareness.  Language has been shown to literally be the “device driver”, so to speak, that drives much of the brain’s core “hardware”.  Thus, deaf people who aren’t identified as such very young or that live in places where they aren’t able to be taught sign language, will be significantly handicapped mentally until they learn a structured language, even though there is nothing actually wrong with their brains.  The problem is even more severe than it may appear at first because of how important language is to the early stages of development of the brain.  Those completely deaf people who are taught no sign language until later life will often have learning problems that stick with them throughout their lives, even after they have eventually learned a particular sign language.

It is because of how integral language is to how our brains develop and function that deaf people were once thought of as mentally handicapped and unteachable.   One can see how observing someone who can’t communicate due to lacking any language and who lacks much self awareness might appear this way.  However, in recent history, up until the 1970s, it was still thought that deaf people were somehow mentally handicapped.

How could this be when they had various sign languages and even vocal training to allow their brains to develop and function properly?  Well, the problem stemmed from the fact that in the 1880s it was decided that deaf people should not use sign language; rather, they should be forced to use spoken language almost exclusively.  This seems reasonable enough on the surface as deaf people are fully capable of learning spoken language and this would allow them to more completely integrate into the hearing world.  The problem with this was only recently discovered and indeed many of the negative implications are only just now being understood.

It turns out, completely deaf people who are forced to use only spoken language are only slightly better off than those who know no language, in terms of their brain functions.  Recent research has shown the brains of the completely deaf never fully associate spoken language in the way sign language gets ingrained in their brains as a language; principally they never develop an “inner voice”, which is necessary for our brains to process information.

They do gain significantly more sense of self and better memory and the like over those who have no language, but in this state, they will never fully reach their brain’s potential as in when they learn sign language.  “There is still a lot of debate over what are the minimal levels of exposure needed to stimulate the language centers. But it is clear that deaf children need early experience of some sort of language if they are going to be good communicators in later life,” says Professor David Wood, a leading deaf educationalist at Nottingham University.

Because of these findings, the “oralist” method of teaching the deaf that had endured for just under 100 years is being rapidly phased out in favor of a “bilingual” education where sign language is taught as early as possible and vocal language is taught as a sort of secondary language.  “Bilingualism is still very much a hot potato. We have come in for a lot of flak and been accused of pushing deaf children into a signing ghetto. Yet the deaf had a big price to pay when the old methods failed. Not only could they not communicate, but they were left without a code to think in. We can no longer ignore what the research tells us,” says Miranda Pickersgill, chief of deaf services for Leeds Local Education Authority.

Bonus Facts:

  • On the “self awareness being tied to language” note, I found this quote from Helen Keller interesting: “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. (…) Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another.”   Hellen Keller, 1908: quoted by Daniel Dennett, 1991, Consciousness Explained. London, The Penguin Press. pg 227
  • The theory behind why those completely deaf people taught only vocal language don’t properly develop an “inner voice” is that without being able to associate sounds with the phonemes and complete words, the language is too abstract and a brain without language already struggles with things that are abstract.  Those deaf people who learn sign language, however, have less trouble with comprehending vocal language and, as noted earlier, have the ability to have an “inner voice” that speaks.  This is thought to be because once the brain has a structured language from which to “run” off of, similar to a computers operating system, abstract concepts can be more easily grasped; thus, comprehending vocal language sounds and text becomes significantly easier.
  • It turns out, our brains treat sign language exactly as it treats spoken language, even using the exact same part of the brain to process it.  This is counterintuitive as you’d think the brain would use some part of the right hemisphere with sign language being visual.  It turns out though that it uses the same portion of the left hemisphere to process sign language as it does for vocal language in the hearing.
  • Interestingly, if you take a deaf person and make them grip something hard with their hands while asking them to memorize a list of words, this has the same disruptive effect as making a hearing person repeat some nonsense phrase such as “Bob and Bill” during memorization tasks.
  • The sign language most often used in the United States is American Sign Language (ASL).  This is very different from many other types of sign languages like British Sign Language (BSL), which is completely unintelligible to someone who uses ASL and vice-verse.  One of the big differences between ASL and many other sign languages is that ASL primarily uses only hand gestures, whereas most types of sign languages, such as BSL, rely heavily on facial expressions and other physical expressions outside of hand and finger gestures. (Based on comments, it appears this factoid is out of date and this is no longer the case with facial expressions now being an integral part of ASL.)
  • While there are many standardized sign languages used, unlike spoken languages, there are also literally thousands of simple sign “languages” used among family units.  This is particularly the case with non-deaf parents that have a deaf child.  They will often develop numerous home signs and some sort of structured system of using the signs to communicate.  These simple “languages” are typically called homesign or kitchensign.
  • Ever wondered how the deaf wake themselves up in the morning?  Well, there are many different ways, none being quite as fool proof as a blaring loud noise is among the hearing.  The most foolproof method, outside of someone just coming to wake you up, is a very strong vibrating accessory attached to a special alarm clock.  The attachment is then generally placed under the pillow or on the bed near the person.  Another common method is an alarm clock that has a bright light attached that points at the sleeper.  When the alarm goes off, it flashes brightly on and off.  Due to the fact that the majority of deaf people are very heavy sleepers, as you might expect, this method doesn’t work as well as you might think.  Yet another method is programming a house or room heater to heat the room to high temperatures around the time the person needs to get up.  This, again, isn’t the best method for heavy sleepers and can result in the other downside of sweaty blankets and sheets. 🙂
  • Contrary to popular belief, most sign languages bear little resemblance to the spoken language from the same area as the particular sign language.  In other words, in the majority of cases, the various sign languages used were not developed from spoken languages.  In fact, American Sign Language resembles Chinese in form more than it does English in terms of a single gesture often represent a phrase or whole idea, rather than a single word.   Further, most sign languages were invented by the deaf and thus bear little real resemblance to spoken language in form.
  • Similar to spoken language, sign languages have accents.  Typically these manifest themselves in small variations in how one does a gesture or the like.  For instance, in British Sign Language, the gesture for “car” is holding up two fists at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position and wobbling slightly as if steering a wheel.  However, in Newcastle, England, the fists are held together with fingers extended slightly, but with the same motion.  In these cases, the overall gesture is very similar within a specific sign language,  but the exact gesture varies from region to region.
  • In addition to the “region to region” accents, deaf people can typically readily identify those deaf people who began signing later in life by their “late learner” accent.
  • Interestingly, one of the marks of a “southern” American Sign Language (ASL) accent is that southern signers sign much slower than northern signers, essentially mimicking the southern drawl in sign.
  • Along with differing accents, there are numerous dialects, among various deaf communities, that technically use the same sign language.  This is largely due to the various homesigns that find their way into these groups particular dialects.   For instance, it is estimated that only about 80% of the British Sign Language (BSL) is universally understood by all users of BSL.  The other 20% or so of the language varies from region to region.
  • Deaf people typically clap by striking their hands together only when surrounded by hearing people.  Otherwise, they use the more expressive motion of raising their hands and twisting their wrists rapidly to “clap”.
  • The earliest record of sign language being used dates all the way back to the fifth century B.C., in Plato’s Cratylus, where Socrates states: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?”
  • In 1880 and international congress of deaf teachers voted to abandon sign language and teach only oral language to the deaf.  This was in an effort to allow them to integrate into hearing society.  This oral method has endured until very recently when research has demonstrated just how catastrophic this is on the proper cognitive development of deaf people.
  • The first research showing the failure of the oral method was done by Cambridge Professor Ruban Conrad in the 1970s who tested reading ability in deaf teenagers trained in the oral method.  He discovered that while the average deaf teenager could read individual words at about an eight year old level, they read without understanding, particularly when it came to taking in the meaning of a full sentence.  The problem was that they had not adequately been able to develop an “inner voice” due to being restricted to oral language which they could not hear.  Thus, without the inner voice, there was no auditory imagery to linger in short term memory while they took in the whole sentence.
  • About one person out of every one thousand born is born completely deaf.
  • It is quite common for deaf people, when they are dreaming, to not only communicate in their dreams using sign language, but also to communicate telepathically and sometimes even verbally even though they may not know how to speak verbally in the waking world.  One deaf person notes: “I think most common one would be telepathy but there have been times when I wake up signing. People who have slept over at my home have heard me talking verbally in my sleep. I recall one ex boyfriend who said that he could understand what I was saying perfectly! How ironic, I speak better in my sleep than I do while awake.”
  • The critical age for learning language is around 21 to 36 months old.  During this period, much of the cognitive infrastructure in a person’s brain is developed and it is thought, much of it is developed as a result of learning language.
  • Research has shown that deaf people are able to learn a sign language, such as ASL, significantly faster than the non-deaf learn spoken language.  One deaf orphan, who was three at the time he was placed with his new family and had no knowledge of ASL, recounts the following on this issue:  “On the way home from the airport, which was about four hours drive, my mom brought a children’s book and she was ready to teach me signs right there in the car. My first education happened in a car! We were sitting in the backseat, with my dad on my left and my mom on the right. My uncle was doing the driving. My parents showed me how to sign those pictures in the book like animals, trees, etc. My mom said by the time we got home, we had finished the whole book and I’d learn all the signs from the book. After one week, I had learned enough signs that we were signing normally as if we were together since I was born. One week was all it took…”
  • Sign Languages are not often written due to the incredibly complexity of trying to replicate the non-sequential nature of signing.  For instance, in spoken language, if you wanted to say “I walked home” and then say something about your walk home;  perhaps, “It was nice out and I enjoyed the walk.”  You’d need to add that sentence in a sequential fashion.  In sign languages such as BSL, you’d use your hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. to express things like that the walk was on a dirt road; it was nice out; and you enjoyed the walk, with it all expressed simultaneously.  This non-sequential nature of sign languages allows for faster and more detailed communication, but has the drawback of being ridiculously hard to put into print, though attempts have been made.
  • The first modern treatise on the subject of sign language was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo Bonet called: Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’)
  • When reading articles written by people who are actively members of the deaf culture, you’ll often notice when they write, they sometimes capitalize the “D” in “Deaf” and sometimes not.  What’s going on here is that people who are referred to as “deaf” (with a little “d”) are people who are medically deaf, but not an active member of the deaf culture and may even shun it to a certain extent or be completely oblivious to its existence. In other words, they generally hang out with and associate with hearing people, even though they are medically deaf.  “Deaf” (with a big D), on the other hand, refers to the deaf culture, people who actively embrace their deafness and are members of the deaf community or culture, even to the point that sometimes people who are Deaf and have the option, may shun getting a medical implant that would allow them to hear as up to that point, they may have lived their whole life in the “Deaf world” and have no interest in being able to live in the “hearing world”.
  • On a related note, you also may occasionally read that the distinction between big “D” and little “d” in the deaf culture has to do with the level of hearing the person has, with “big D” implying that the person is totally deaf, whereas “little d” implies only partial deafness or someone who has a medical device that allows them to hear.  This, however, is a “big D vs little d” distinction that is no longer generally used and the above listed definition is drastically more popular. Although, of course, there is sometimes a correlation between the two definitions in that people who are fully deaf often gravitate towards other people who are deaf in their social lives and people who have some hearing may well gravitate more towards a “hearing” culture. In any event, one commenter below summed the “big D vs. little d” distinction quite nicely, “D/deaf… refers to being culturally Deaf (D) vs. being ‘medically’ deaf (d).”
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  • This was a fascinating article telling how deaf people think! Never could imagine about it! Great work!

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  • Thank you for all of this excellent information, particularly concerning the language problem with deaf people. It is a real shame that due to a lack of understanding by parents and physicians, deaf kids are often at a huge disadvantage by not learning a natural language (be it English or ASL) during the critical period. As a former interpreter and instructor of English for underprepared deaf college students, this is an issue that is massively important and massively misunderstood.

    One correction. The “big D”/”little d” thing doesn’t really have to do with how much hearing a person has. Rather, it’s about cultural identity. You can be completely, profoundly deaf and still not identify with Deaf culture, while many Deaf people are not in fact profoundly deaf. It has to do with the use of sign language and other important aspects of Deaf culture, and whether the individual chooses to subscribe to those.

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  • Meredith

    ASL absolutely relies on facial expressions and other physical communication. In fact, only about 50% of ASL is expressed through the hands; the other 50% is through the face. It is grammatically incorrect to sign ASL without facial expressions – imagine if you dropped all the vowels from an English sentence. You might be understood, but there would be something painfully abnormal about your style of communication.

    • @Meredith: That’s interesting. From accounts I read from people who’s primarily language is BSL, their major complaint about ASL was that it primarily relied on hand gestures, unlike BSL, so it felt very restricting to them. I wonder if this is a case of different dialects of ASL or if the BSL users I read those accounts from were simply mistaken about ASL?

    • S bsclly, sng ASL wtht fcl xprssns s knd f tlkng lk ths? Thank you for teaching me something useful that I didn’t know before.

  • Clark Grundler

    The primary difference between ASL and BSL is their manual alphabets. ASL being one handed and BSL using both hands. An example: ASL all the vowel signs are unique single hand shapes; BSL uses the dominant hand to point to the digits on the other hand which is spread open palm facing the body. You can find this demonstrated if you search the two languages.

  • Pat

    I have been hard of hearing since the age of 2. Got my first hearing aid at 6 years old. Fast forward…. I read this article with great interest. I think that there must be some mistake.. as I and my daughter attended ASL classes in Oxnard, CA and they were also teaching with hand and face and this was in 1999.

  • iheartgiraffe

    Meredith is correct, there is a lot of facial grammar in ASL. For example, when giving directions, the direction is indicated by a hand motion, but the distance is based on facial expression.

    There are even books on facial grammar in ASL, including Deaf Tend You: Non-Manual Signs in ASL by Byron Bridges.

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  • Tim

    A factoid you might include is that babies will baby-talk with their hands if their parents sign.
    Also regarding the sense of self, I heard something years ago that said we can only conceive of things we have words for.

  • Nice post. I didn’t knew before that how deaf people used to think and thank you for letting us know about it.

  • Holly

    Sadly the information stating that BSL relies heavily on facial expression while ASL does not, is inacccurate. 70% of the communicated information in ASL is via facial expression, often called Non-manual markers/behaviors by those who study ASL. Only 30% is in the physical signs produced.

    Just FYI

  • Holly

    Also just for the verification of the ASL information regarding facial markers, I am a Bachelors ASL/Interpreting major and this is one of the number one things they teach us with proof visible daily on campus in the most densely populated area in the US in regards to Deaf people, Rochester NY. As for your sources, they may have simply been speaking from their experience, but the thing to keep in mind is that just as with spoken languages, signed languages have their variances as well. One thing that does happen, is in the old school form of US Signed languages was to sign with limited or no facial expressions. But that is very outdated and is borderline obsolete nowadays.
    The other comment on big D/little d is also correct; it has nothing to do with the amount of hearing you have, but more the perception or identification the individual makes; am I broken, and something needs to be fixed? Or am I simply a member of a definite culture and community within which I can communicate and socialize as all others might? The former would be little d, the latter Big D. However it is a very complex decision, that only the individuals choosing can base an opinion on.

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  • beachdaddy

    Great posts, and a good article.

    A consideration to note (from the 15th factoid in the article) is that the teachers who decided to abandon teaching sign language were primarily non-deaf. They were not “deaf teachers”, rather they were “teachers of the deaf”, not to be misinterpreted.

    One more concern regarding the present-day situation revolves around cochlear implants. I’ve heard that the number of CI surgeries (performed on infants) is increasing, which suggests that sign language is again being abandoned. Most parents of deaf children are not given equal information about sign language, compared to surgical/technological options (which, by the way, are most often supported and subsidized by governments, which is a whole other story).

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  • It is not surprising to me given my profound deafness since birth. Unlike most deaf people who can hear a little with hearing aids, I have absolutely no hearing and hearing aids do not work on me. However, I was raised speaking for the most part so I think phonetically. English is the most complicated language for a deaf person to learn. Steak and stake sounds the same. Broke a record or I will record it, “record” sounds different. Ghost, enough, dough… the “gh” is either an F, G, or silent. Deaf people in Germany are far more likely to speak since German letters always sound the same. Coke sounds like Cok-uh in Germany with all letters accounted for. The “g” in German words such as gut (sounds like goot), general, etc. is the same as our “g” in “dog.”

    • Gianluca

      I agree with Richie. I have been profoundly deaf since birth, but having learned to talk in Italian with a speech therapist since when I was 10 months old, I always think phonetlically. I believe that Italian is a very good language for deaf people to learn because there are no ‘exceptions’ between written and spoken words. Having moved in Australia, I struggled to learn English and despite having lived here for 8 years, I still am experiencing lots of issues in lip-reading the language.

    • Giselle

      You say you think phonetically and you were raised speaking. I’m pretty curious, what is your inner voice like? Do you “hear” by reading lips? I hope I’m not being rude for asking, I’m just really curious!

  • Interesting thought

    Hmmm, I think the reason why we don’t remember anything from when we were babies is because we didn’t know any languages and couldn’t process anything.

  • Nicole

    I think in terms of visual pictures… I am Deaf, but use ASL everyday, all day… I would say about 95% of all my closest friends and family are Deaf/hh. So there is very little verbal language around me. Therefore there is no need for the “little voice” in the back of my head that talks as I think, like most hearing people have. Actually “true” American Sign Language cannot be sim-com (simutaneous communication). Meaning, if you are signing true ASL you cannot talk at the same time. Ususally when people use sim-com they are signing SEE (Signed Exact English), which is not a real language like ASL, but a lot of people use it. And some people kinda mix it all together, using a mix of ASL and SEE, they call it PSE (Pidgeon Sign Language) which is not a language either… like spanglish or something. It is a VERY hard thing for hearing people to learn: to shut off that voice in the back of your mind while signing, and think in terms of pictures only… but for me it is easy since my brain has been geared that way. I do also know English very well (as you can tell) but I don’t think in sounds since I have never heard before. Thanks for this article!

  • “For those deaf people who are not completely deaf or wear devices to allow them to hear somewhat, often represented in deaf circles with a “little d”, rather than “big D” as in those who are can’t hear at all, will often experience more vocal language in their “inner voice” in proportion to how much they can hear.”


    big D little d doesn’t depend on one’s hearing status, but on one’s IDENTITY. A deaf or hard of hearing person is more likely to consider themselves “big D” if they use sign language, are actively involved with the Deaf community, and have many Deaf friends. if a deaf or hard of hearing person is oral, doesn’t sign, is not involved with the deaf community or doesn’t have many deaf friends, then they’re more likely to call themselves “little d.”

  • and have many Deaf friends. if a deaf or hard of hearing person is oral, doesn’t sign, is not involved with the deaf community or doesn’t have many deaf friends, then they’re more likely to call themselves “little d.”

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  • A bit frustrating to read about how important facial expressions etc are to signing. I’m hearing and high functioning autistic, and I’d like to learn to sign, but due to autism it’ll be difficult if not impossible for me to learn to communicate by body language. I suspect Deaf people probably tend to assume I’m being an ignorant hearing person, when actually body language is about as foreign to me as speech is to a Deaf person.

  • cindy

    Very interesting! I do have to disagree with this statement though: ”  One of the big differences between ASL and many other sign languages is that ASL primarily uses only hand gestures, whereas most types of sign languages, such as BSL, rely heavily on facial expressions and other physical expressions outside of hand and finger gestures”. An integral component of ASL is indeed facial expression. Facial expression differentiates between a phrase being a question or a statement. Also, depending on the facial expression used a sign’s meaning is changed. For example, the (glossed) sign for LATE can mean LATE or NOT YET depending on facial expression, in particular mouth movement. Thanks again for a great piece of information.

    • Absolutely – I am an interpreter, interpreter educator, and a mentor. I teach a workshop called “The 5th Parameter” which specifically focuses on how important non-manual markers are, and how they aren’t just facial expressions. With signs where thefirst four parameters (location, handshape, palm orientation and movement) are identical the 5th parameter (Non-manual markers) can make the difference between two different concepts, or the difference between formal and informal levels of the same concept. It is one of the most misunderstood features of ASL by hearing people.

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  • Elizabeth

    I wanted to learn ASL and took two semesters and my deaf teacher told me she couldn’t teach me anymore because I am a visual learner and need to be in a classroom setting and that private tutoring is not working for me. She said she was not the right teacher for me and I am not learning fast enough. I thought it interesting that a handicapped person would not teach me because I am not learning fast enough. I never felt she liked me as compared to her other students. I guess I will not learn ASL because it is too far a drive for me to go to learn and with work and family I would not be able to.

  • Linda Nicola

    There absolutely is more to ASL than hand gestures. Facial expression is critical. Where the signs are placed spatially tell time and denote pronouns. I’m not an expert in sign, but my daughter is and could tell you more, but your understanding of ASL linguistics is, indeed, incorrect. And ASL is closer to French sign language and is considered ‘creole’. Some countries have two or three different signed languages: South Africa has three, one for whites, one for blacks, one for ‘colored’ or yellow races. Ireland has two, one for males, one for females (the nuns taught sign and wanted to keep the sexes apart).

  • sarah

    hi ive been hard of hearing for years and i am now just getting my hearing aids, my parents think that im not hearing them on purpose but im not, i finaly agreed to get hearing aids, which is ok i guess, to answer elizbeths question and we are not handycaped we are perfect the way we are, im sure someone in the deaf world would be glad to teach you, i was taugth sign by my deaf friends so we could commucate! just ask but you need to have a open mind we are not { disablied} we dont use that word.

  • mabelsureisfine

    I think you need to do a little bit of fact checking.
    D/deaf actually refers to being culturally Deaf (D) vs being ‘medically’ deaf (d). It does not refer to the amount of hearing loss, although it is sometimes related. This is because sometimes those with more of an ability to hear will associate themselves more with Hearing culture than Deaf culture (speaking instead of signing, etc) which in turn means that they are not Deaf (big D), but only deaf.
    Also, when the first residential school for the Deaf was founded in 1817 (Hartford, Connecticut). Laurent Clerc (later the president of the school) came over from France to help establish it and he promoted the use of signs in education (although he leaned more towards a signed form of English than ASL). It wasn’t until the 1900s, when some “experts on the matter” decided that the oral approach was more appropriate and banned signing in schools for the deaf. The Deaf teachers lost their jobs because they were no longer allowed to communicate in their language (and the language of the students) and students were punished harshly if there were caught using signs.
    I appreciate you writing this article, there few things online for the hearing public to read that will educate them on how the DEAF-WORLD works, but as such, you should be very careful that when you write, you are giving them the proper information.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @mabelsureisfine: Thanks for the comment. On your first note (big D vs. little d) that seems to be something that has changed over the years, and you are correct that in looking into it again (just now) more people today support your notion of big D vs. little d, whereas a few of the older generation deaf people I’ve just read on the topic when researching it again, mention the older nomenclature, which I assume is where I got the original notion in the first place (it’s been ages since I researched the article, so I can’t remember exactly). So I’ve fixed it in the article to reflect the more popular meaning, as you suggested.

      As to your second point, why I said “1880s” is that in the 1880s there was an International Congress on Education of the Deaf that ran from September 6-11, 1880 in Milan. During that conference, it was decided that deaf people would be better off being taught orally, and they passed a resolution to ban the use of sign language in all schools. This practice was then adopted in many places in Europe and the United States. So it was in fact in the 1880s that this practice began, though I’m sure the switch wasn’t made over night and some schools may have even taken a few decades to make the switch, which is perhaps where you’ve read the “1900s”. But, as I said in the article, ” in the 1880s it was decided that deaf people should not use sign language”. So I did not change that in the article.

      Rest assured, I’m extremely careful about all information put in my articles, as one of the key reasons I started this website in the first place was to create a place people could go where they could read facts that are actually accurate, unlike the vast majority of all fact based websites out there (I can only think of 3 exceptions to this, straightdope, snopes, and my website). Most others have an amazing amount of misinformation and things like Yahoo answers or the like are a complete joke in terms of trying to find accurate information on fact or trivia based topics. That being said, nobody bats 1000, but one can try, at least. And rest assured, I do try very hard and as you can tell, I’m perfectly willing to re-research something if a commenter thinks I’m wrong. And that’s no small thing now that I’ve got over 1000 articles with tons of information in each article and a high trafficked site where people disagree with things I’ve said all the time, whether they are right or wrong (usually they are wrong). 🙂

      Thanks again for your feedback, it’s always appreciated. 🙂

  • Allison Bergh

    Hi! I just wanted to contribute a couple things I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet:
    First: not only does ASL have major non-gestural components (facial expression and body language), it also has vocal or spoken elements. While not formally necessary or technically part of the language linguistically-speaking, they add a lot to it communication and expression-wise. I think of it as like the difference between the way one speaks in formal situations like tea with the Queen or something versus how one speaks when just hanging out with friends. A group of Deaf people is often noisier than a group of hearing (or as a Deaf friend of mine said “Deaf-impaired”) people. Incidentally, the sign for “hearing” (that is, not deaf) doesn’t involve the ears and could actually be translated as “speaking.”
    And finally, it’s been a while since I was involved with the Deaf community but 15 years or so ago some people were getting pretty excited about Total Communication or TC – I won’t make this post even longer by going on about it at length but… If you blend ASL vocabulary and some of its conventions with English grammar and sentence structure, you get a viable creole called Pidgin Sign English (PSE). It’s easier for hearing people to become comfortable with, and makes it easier for Deaf people to acquire spoken or written English. Throw in some odds and ends from the Oral tradition and some basics of lip reading and you get TC – which strives first and foremost for (as the name implies) total communication. Proponents believe d-/Deaf people should be able to be true to their culture while also being well-equipped to function in the Deafness-impaired world.
    Sorry for being so long-winded. (Shout outs to Jessie, Gabby, Stacia, and Billy Seago!!)

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  • Bob Svoboda

    As the firstborn child of deaf parents, I’d love to see an article on children of deal parents. I actually find myself thinking in sign language sometimes (I’m 62 years old and my parents have been dead for 20 years!). ! I remember my dad especially “talking” to himself in sign language by signing something he saw as we were walking down the street. He wasn’t communicating with me or anyone else. He would just sign something he saw.

    I would echo the comment that some of the noisiest groups I have observed have been groups of deaf people at a social event. And the more they drink, the louder they get. Also, facial expressions are a huge part of ASL. You can even see the importance of facial expressions (which are surprisingly consistent from person to person) in work done by translators on television. GREAT ARTICLE!

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  • As a linguistics student, this really reminds me of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis- which comes first, language or thought?

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  • kodiak

    When I first read the comment about ASL being non-expressive, I was ready to comment. Now that I’ve read through the comments, I see that manyhave already hit on this and on a few other minor concerns I had with the article (thank you for correcting the “big D/little d” bonus fact, BTW.

    One note abut sign language that I haven’t seen anyone else touch on is slang. Much like there are many different accents, dialects, and regional signs (there are 20+ different expressions of “happy birthday” used throughout the US, for example), there is also a large amount of slang. Often this is expressed in what an outsider may view as sloppier signing, but in many ways it has special meaning in ASL, almost like a pun.

    An example shared with me when I first started learning ASL (I am hearing, but I attended college at a university with a large deaf population–the same school, presumably, that commenter Holly also attended) is the sign for STUDENT. In “proper” ASL, this is signed as LEARN-PERSON (i.e. the sign for learn is signed, followed by the sign for person. Both signs require two hands to sign correctly, but in conversation this sign is often done with one and blurs into something that looks more like LEARN-FORGET. I’ve been told that this is not entirely accidental, as students will often learn what they need to know and then promptly forget it after the test.

  • Evans Winter

    I know nothing of sign languages, but am acutely aware of the many incomprehensible incongruities of American spoken english and, by extension, the difficulties of standardization of a language given so few resources to work with and in consideration of the time restraints in usage (my perception).

    To the credit of the site, it is the only site I know of where the comments are generally thoughtful and serious, and therefore contributory to the extension of knowledge. Thanks, folks—

    That being said, since the comments herein appear to be unanimous in agreement that ASL is not expressionless, I now wonder if the author provides a site of reference for acknowledgment of errors, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, etc., that are detected in the original articles. Please enlighten or correct me—and thanks again, whoever—

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Evans Winter: I do closely monitor such things, as I started this site to make an “interesting fact” site where you can come and know everything you’re reading is thoroughly researched and correct, at least reflecting the state of human knowledge on the subject at the point the article was written. (Obviously particular in medical articles, new research sometimes contradicts old understandings, which is why I usually stay away from medical facts, unless the thing is completely understood.) But anyways, so if someone challenges something I’ve researched and written about, I take it very seriously in terms of weighing whether I should re-research it and possibly make corrections. 🙂

      If people give good sources for their information or if there are enough claimed experts in the particular thing contradicting my research on it, I re-review the thing to see if they’re correct. In this case, it does appear that facial expressions used to not be much of a factor in communicating with ASL, but today they’re integral; so my original sources on the matter appear to be outdated on their stance on the issue. So I’ve updated the factoid to reflect that. Thanks to everyone who pointed out the mistake. 🙂

  • Richard R.

    Hi. Deaf person here. The authors are right that spoken and sign language factor into how deaf people think. There is also written language, commonly a sidekick of spoken language, but if a deaf person gets a hold of written language and its proprieties and nuances, then his or her mind could curve in a more literary direction than most hearing people ( or even signing deaf people). So the conventions and thinking habits of writers could come to color such a person’s thoughts. Of course, a deaf person has to get there first. My guess is that your typical literary deaf person starts out as a oral deaf person, learning spoken rather than signed language, and is taught to read concurrently with the teaching of language itself, or shortly after. Such was the case with me.

  • Richard R.

    Keep in mind that I had some residual hearing (which has since been converted to mechanical hearing due to cochlear implants) at the time I learned spoken language, and that the words were spoken slowly and clearly. This, my method of learning to read along with learning to speak might not work for everyone. However, it’s worth a try.

  • Alli

    Just one added point – and I know you’ve addressed this, but wanted to update a bit:

    You write, in response to comments about ASL using facial expressions and body language:

    it does appear that facial expressions used to not be much of a factor in communicating with ASL, but today they’re integral; so my original sources on the matter appear to be outdated on their stance on the issue…”

    “From Wikipedia – “American Sign Langauge” page: “There are also meaningful non-manual signals in ASL.[61] This may include movement of the eyebrows, the cheeks, the nose, the head, the torso, and the eyes.[61]
    William Stokoe proposed that these components are analogous to the phonemes of spoken languages”

    Know that William Stokoe’s work was accomplished in the 1960s, and “non-manual signals” were integral in his studies on ASL. So I am not sure how old the references given to you were, but thought you might enjoy seeing this. Stokoe’s work is invaluable in raising ASL to a true-language status and is highly regarded to this day. There are also a handful of videos of Deaf from the early 20th century US that clearly show facial expression and body language as necessary and integral to ASL.

    I do believe, and have been told, that prior to the ’70s many Deaf “calmed” their use of facial expression and such in public in order to respect Hearing habits and to minimize condescension toward the Deaf – Hearing Americans can be rather boring and embarrassed by anything that is normal to self! 😉

    Anyway, just an added thought. Perhaps the BSL users misunderstood the subleties of ASL non-manual signals/markers – they may differ from BSL users’ own. Another personal thought.

    Thank you for a wonderful article that well-informs! Just my notes. Thanks for “listening.”

  • David

    What a wonderful article! It has answered many questions I have had regarding the mental processes of the non-hearing community.

    One thing not precisely covered is whether there are differences in ASL as used in different countries. Can an American using ASL “speak” to an Italian? Or is there an ISL (Italian Sign Language), or a GSL (German), that are fundimentaly different from one another?

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  • Stephen F.

    Reading the above comments I would like to add my own life long experiences I don’t find in these forums. I had a total hearing loss due to meningitis at age 8. Since at that time in the third grade I already had a well developed speaking ability for such that age. The transition from a normal hearing world to a silent one brought about plenty of problems right at the beginning. Being the oldest of 9 children actually did not bring about too many problems inside the home. I was still the oldest and expected to be an example to my younger siblings. Constant communication by lip reading and written notes to me when necessary kept things moving along well enough for those younger years. However many things were tougher on the outside , the loss of friends, ostracism, ridicule, impatience, etc. I went through the rest of elementary school in HOH class but refused to learn sign language, and my father agreed to my wishes. In junior high I attended only 1 HOH class of 6 or 7 daily classes that kept an eye on things. For high school, community college, and automotive vocational I was on my own. This was the only way I thought I could get somewhere regardless of what came. As of now I’ve been a mechanic for 40 years I’ve had more friends than I can remember. I’ve had good and bad times , close calls , resentment of being deaf and times of loneliness. I don’t personally know any deaf people at this time but wouldn’t mind a bit to talk with them. That’s it for now, would like to tell of all the funny occurrences but that’s for another time. God bless

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  • Flavian Massago laiser

    true deafness is more serious than blindness in the fact that a deaf person miss communication to stimulate brain fuction

  • Mercedes Floresislas

    I got to say that I was put off by the actual article but I appreciated the long quotation. Having read David’s responses I’m very appreciative of the work put into understanding the issues misrepresented. May I add two more? “It was only recently discovered that” teaching oralist over sign is not better is an incorrect, Audism based statement; DEAF PEOPLE HAVE KNOWN THIS ALL ALONG. It was only recently, after decades of advocacy by Deaf leaders, that the hearing community has agreed.

    Lastly, prior to 1880s, the Deaf community in America was thriving but it entered its Century of Oppression resulting from Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Sign language suddenly was deemed inferior and not worthy human expression. Darwin’s influence, with its “survival of the fittest” mentality gave birth to Audism. The point? I appreciate the thoroughness you strive for and I hope that in your research you develop a “Deaf eye” and become able to discern if what you read is influenced by Audism, Deafism (yes, we can be biased too) or unbiased facts (good look with that!).

  • cassie

    i wonder if there is a difference in how your thinking is formed, depending on if you learn a sign language, or signed english? unsure if other languages / sign languages make such a distinction, but in australia there is auslan and signed english – auslan being the deaf language, with deaf grammar which is quite different from spoken grammar, and the other is signed english, which from what i understand is a literal translation of english. the positive side to signed english is that it’s easier to make the transition to reading, writing and lip reading. however now i’m wondering if it makes a difference as to how a person thinks with their inner voice.

  • Warren Lewis

    HI, interesting article. There are one or two points which I disagree with as a deaf person.

    You did not take cochlear implants into account. The cochlear implant can be a game-changer and indeed, has enabled many deaf, even profoundly deaf, people to have a sense of hearing. In such cases, spoken language will have a obviously bigger impact.

    “It turns out, completely deaf people who are forced to use only spoken language are only slightly better off than those who know no language, in terms of their brain functions. Recent research has shown the brains of the completely deaf never fully associate spoken language in the way sign language gets ingrained in their brains as a language; principally they never develop an “inner voice”, which is necessary for our brains to process information.” – Here, you will have to clarify on which you mean by “completely deaf person”. A person can be completely deaf, and have an inner voice thanks to having been taught to communicate verbally with the help and usage of their cochlear implants.

    All in all, an interesting article which could have been better had it taken cochlear implants into account.

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  • Robert J.

    I have a question:

    If someone has been deaf since birth and thinks in terms of sign language, I assume they have a visual image of the sign. If so, do they see the sign as if they are making it, or from the perspective of receiving it from another person. (Analogous to whether a hearing person hears their own voice or that of another person.)

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  • Ray Phillips

    I would love to be in touch with someone born deaf and unrecognized for a few years. This relates to an historical novella, now about half done, in the 1640’s. I’d love to hear a description by someone who had to figure out on their own that somehow they were different than their hearing parents and siblings. What are the clues, the problems, the adjustments before discovery? Specific incidents would be particularly appreciated. The gist of the novella story can be shared on request.

    • n

      Ray Phillips can email me regarding novella if he can privately get my email or the site sends his. Born very hard of hearing and unrecognized until school told parents.

    • Claudio DiG

      I have a cousin who was thought for years to have a retardation or an articulation problem, as he was unable to properly repeat words spoken to him. The child himself didn’t understand what was wrong with him.
      When it was detected the problem was in his hearing (certain sounds were not “registering” in his ears), a hearing device worked very well for him. Now that he is an adult (and quite intelligent too; he is a graduate computer programmer), sometimes he doesn’t even wear the hearing device, as he is able to interpret or “translate” into normal language the fractured sounds he hears, and he answers normally.

  • Gianfranco Tubino B.

    Telepathic communication? Please, use some common sense and do not share BS as fact.

    • Claudio DiG

      Yes, it would be nonsense if it has been told as a factual event.
      I want to believe (I hope I’m right) that what is meant here is that within the dream, the deaf person articulates a thought addressed to another character in the dream and that character understands the message without gestures. Everything could be imagined, everything could happen, in a dream.

  • Michele Westfall

    Daven Hiskey (the author) got one part wrong: “Because of these findings, the “oralist” method of teaching the deaf that had endured for just under 100 years is being rapidly phased out in favor of a “bilingual” education where sign language is taught as early as possible and vocal language is taught as a sort of secondary language.”

    I wish THAT was true! But it’s not. Oralism is still alive and well…and cochlear implants aren’t helping, either, because both are often connected thanks to the medical and audiological industries. In addition to that, schools for the deaf are also being killed off by hearing legislators because these legislators often either think they are saving their state money (which is not the case) or they have financially profitable relationships with oral schools/pro-oral organizations (such as Alexander Graham Bell Association).
    Too many parents still opt for oral option over bilingual approach, and that’s another problem.

  • Rob

    “completely deaf”

    this has to be the most stupid and ill thought out statement made by the author.

    Did you actually bother to research through either medial field or the various groups that work and support the deaf?

    RNID, UCL( who do research into deafness language, cognitive development etc) NDCS etc??

    There is no such thing as completely deaf- its a falsehood.

    If you were completely deaf you would have no skull !!

    because you can hear sounds through bone conduction !!

    yo just can’t make enough sense of them to understand speech.

    there are only degrees of deafness – ranging from mild to profound ( I am profound and yet I hear with aids)

    There are types of deafness ranging from cochlear to senso neural( loss of nerves that translate sounds into electrical signals)

    “It is quite common for deaf people, when they are dreaming, to not only
    communicate in their dreams using sign language, but also to communicate
    telepathically and sometimes even verbally even though they may not
    know how to speak verbally in the waking world. One deaf person notes:
    “I think most common one would be telepathy but there have been times
    when I wake up signing”

    Does the author truly believe in telepathy???

    Does he even know what telepathy is?

    Deaf people DO NOT communicate telepathically, they wouldn’t need sign language if they did!

    “It turns out, completely deaf people who are forced to use only spoken
    language are only slightly better off than those who know no language,
    in terms of their brain functions. Recent research has shown the brains
    of the completely deaf never fully associate spoken language in the way
    sign language gets ingrained in their brains as a language; principally
    they never develop an “inner voice”, which is necessary for our brains
    to process information.”

    I’m calling BS on this on, cite your specific evidence on this.

    apart from the stupid label of completely deaf( for which I would fall into the category once redefined properly).

    I can speak clearly as can other members of my family(all oral speakers) are not slightly better off, but much better off because we develop language. So you say I never develop an inner voice because I use spoken language rather than sign language?

    BULLSHIT !!!- i have the same inner voice as those who are not deaf.

    if you are going to compare degrees of deafness then compare pre lingual and post lingual deafness. pre lingual deaf have a smaller area of the brain developed for auditory processing.It is claimed that the areas of the brain normally reserved for auditory processing is instead used for visual, acuity and reasoning processing.

    UCL( university collegue of london) recently announced that their research into these groups of deaf were discovered to have higher levels of peripheral vision( supposedly from more visual acuity processing in the brain.

    “In any event, one commenter below summed the “big D vs. little d”
    distinction quite nicely, “D/deaf… refers to being culturally Deaf (D)
    vs. being ‘medically’ deaf (d).”

    again some crappy labeling going on here

    Big D is Deaf Culture but still deaf

    Little d is also deaf, but not part of the Deaf Culture

    There is NO medically deaf label , you are just deaf

    “and may even shun it to a certain extent or be completely oblivious to its existence”
    as do some of those who are of Deaf culture who shuns those who are little d for various reasons , either because of speech, hearing aids, cochlear implants etc.
    Thankfully I have met many who are like that , most of Big D are accepting.

    well done for one of the most patronizing smart ass article ever written about the deaf.
    with stupid misinformed labeling and supposed research that wasn’t through and backup with dubious references.