``We've had sign language as long as we've had deaf people,'' says Jack Gannon, author of ``Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America,'' which traces sign language back to Benedictine monks in Italy around AD 530. They had taken a vow of silence and needed to communicate their daily needs. Deaf children had always developed their own signs at home to communicate with parents and siblings, but most had little or no schooling.
The first school for the deaf was started in 1817 by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was persuaded by parents of deaf children to go to Europe to learn educational methods for the purpose of setting up a school in Hartford, Conn.
Traveling to England and France, Mr. Gallaudet studied French sign language and persuaded Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher, to return to the United States with him. In the new school, the two teachers taught children French signs, which the students added to the ``home signs'' they already knew. That French influence is still evident in American sign language.
According to Mr. Gannon, deaf people use four methods of communicating: American Sign Language (ASL), pidgin sign language, signed exact English, and oral, in which deaf people read lips and speak. People who are deaf from birth or lose their hearing before they've learned to speak English have a more difficult time learning to speak and read lips than those who lose their hearing later in life.
``I've talked to deaf people all over the country to get a feel for this,'' Gannon says. ``People at Gallaudet practice pidgin sign language. At the grass-roots level, people use ASL.
Massachusetts, historically, was the most oral. In 1880 some educators believed using sign language was wrong; that it made deaf people separate. So they taught only oral and wouldn't let children use sign. In the process some children got their hands slapped. And in 1880 there was a proposed ban on signing. I don't think they realized that by forbidding sign language they were preventing a good image of sign. In the 1960s, sign came into its own.''