Gerald Shea, a history of sign language

Writer Gerald Shea with Jacques Thorin at the French book signing of his first work, “Song without words”, “La Vie malentendue”

Sign language or oral language for the Deaf, cochlear implants on babies ? Gerald Shea, author of « Song without words », a memoir on his experience as a partly deaf adult, recounts the history of sign language, largely promoted in France by Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée who founded the first public school for the deaf, in a new book, « The Language of Light » published by Yale University Press. 

« Our most beautiful discourse is at the tips of our fingers and our language is rich in secret beauties that you who speak will never know… » writes Ferdinand Berthier in 1840. It is the French Revolutionary government which gave the School for the Deaf its actual location on rue Saint Jacques near the Pantheon in 1794. Auguste Bébian, a hearing teacher of the Deaf, learned sign language and developed teaching methods   that remain fundamental today in America and in Europe. He is the real hero of this book. For four years, Gerald Shea studied the French archives and visited Gallaudet University in Washington, and this book is the result of the bilingual research.

Published by Yale University Press, “The Language of Light” will be read by its author on October 4th at the American Library in Paris

One chapter is particularly fascinating when Shea recounts the critical Debate in England between Edward Gallaudet, an American from Hartford, Ct, with a deaf mother who was a defender of sign language and founded Gallaudet University. And Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edimburgh, an elocutionist who would become the inventor of telephone and the founder of AT&T. His wife and mother were deaf and he was an oralist, an apostle of speech and lipreading for the deaf. The battle over how the deaf should be educated continues today.

Another chapter is devoted to Helen Keller, the deaf and blind young girl, who graduated from Radcliffe and published “The story of my life” in 1903 with the help of her tutor Anne Sullivan: her book is studied by every child in America.

Gerald Shea photographed by Anne Bert

Gerald Shea also speaks about Emmanuelle Laborit, a beautiful deaf French actress. In her plays, featuring both hearing and deaf actors, one character signs as another speaks, another actor speaks as his words are signed.

The book is a comprehensive analysis of what has been done for the Deaf in France and in America in the last three centuries but it is also a fervent plaidoyer for sign language as a communication tool like any other language. The difficulty is that each country has a different sign language, French deafs sign differently than Americans and even British deafs sign differently than Americans.

Reviewed and praised by linguists and historians « The Language of Light, a history of silent voices”, is a fascinating key to understanding the world of the deaf. Gerald Shea will present his book in a talk at the American Library in Paris on October 4 th at 7.30 pm with a sign language interpreter and everyone is welcome.

Share this Post