• Peter Byrne

Good News from America

“News from America, or the Patriots in the Dumps” is a cartoon engraved in the 1770s held at the Library of Congress in Washington. After the last few years, we know how the crumpled matronly figure of America felt in her deflated Liberty Cap. In a time of confinement and rigid borders, some good news has come through. The Fulbright Association has sent Natalie Tedards to Salento as an English Teaching Assistant. A previous scholarship had taken her to Rome in 2018 to study Italian.

Natalie graduated from the University of Chicago in 2020 with a BA in Comparative Human Development. Her parallel activity suggests the range of her interests. She has spent five years advising and preparing students for university entry in the highly competitive US university industry. The experience fixed her attention on issues of human rights and inequality in education and health care. What brought Natalie to address the Berkeley Circle on January 21st, however, was her studies in ASL, American Sign Language. An introductory course in ASL had led her to emersion in the subject and work in the university’s Sign Language Linguistics Laboratory.

The personal story that Natalie told was a reminder of how total absorption in a subject can result from what happened in earliest childhood. She was born prematurely with her twin sister in Washington D.C. Their first word was slow in coming and brought a diagnosis of a major speech disorder, the beginning of a run of confusing medical advice. Spanish was outlawed in her bilingual household. Private schools, one for the deaf, followed. At six, Natalie, already a veteran of various educational fantasies entered the first grade at a school in Arizona. Considering the clarity and sharp edges of the talk she gave us, her powers of speech took off from there.

Natalie managed somewhat to fill in and correct our vague notions of sign language while always staying close to her own learning experience. Her comparison of studying Italian and ASL was enlightening. That gestures may be more important in Italian culture than in any other creates a problem for Italian Sign Language, (LIS or Lingua Dei Segni Italiana). Linguists claim LIS is a richer and deeper language than the admittedly rich Italian language of gesture. However, though used by upwards of 50,000 deaf Italians, a conflict between the two schools kept LIS from official recognition until 2021.

Natalie gave us a potted history of LIS. It belongs to the family of French Sign Language and differs radically from Italian. Pronouns and gender are handled differently. Verbs come last and a question is asked on the model of “You go where?”. Serious study of LIS began in the 1980s on the pattern of American work on ASL in the 1960s. But there had been French-influenced pioneers centuries before. The Conference of Milan in 1880 was a landmark. Its emphasis was on teaching the national language and doing so orally rather than manually. This approach only changed when the deaf were gradually enrolled as educators of the deaf. The conflict between the two methods, oral or gestural, had been around since the 1760s when the l’abbé de l'Épée had founded the first institution devoted to the education of the deaf, the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris.

In North America, ASL originated in the School for the Deaf founded in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. Influence, again, had come from France. As in Italy, oralism was an obstacle that had never been got completely out of the way. It meant teaching the deaf to understand and use oral language and doing so by speech. Manualism was the alternative, teaching ASL to the deaf by means of ASL. Linguist William Stokoe’s revolutionary work in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement had made ASL accepted as a true language and the long battle finished by the triumph of manualism, the magic of human hands

There was much for us to wonder at and explore in the world that l’abbé de l’Épée and Natalie Tedards had revealed. The Fulbright scholar had whet our appetites. We had an urge to go on to a fuller menu.

Peter Byrne

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