A Man Without Words
Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2012
by Susan Schaller (Univ. of California Press 1991)
Another of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but it wasn’t available at my public library; I found it at the university library, on a shelf with many other accounts of the lives of the deaf. Susan Schaller is a hearing person who learned American Sign Language because she loved it. After moving to Los Angeles with her graduate student husband, Schaller signed up with the local interpreters’ registry and was assigned to a reading class for hearing-impaired people. This was where she met the man she calls Ildefonso, a 27-year-old Mexican she soon realized was “languageless”–having never learned any language at all, either oral or sign-based, he had no concept of what language was and no comprehension of what people were doing when they interacted with each other.
Schaller took on the enormous challenge of introducing Ildefonso to language. She describes her often fruitless attempts to get him to understand the smallest things, as well as her misgivings about having unlocked the door to human communication for him while being unable to help him cross the threshold She wondered if it was even possible for a languageless adult to learn a language; she searched and found nothing written about such people, yet she knew Ildefonso was not the only one. She tried to solicit support from the only academic she could discover who had written about adults without language, only to be rebuffed. But she could not give up.
Eventually, Schaller’s path led her away from Los Angeles and she lost sight of her pupil for several years. When she found him again, he had indeed acquired language, and he was eager to answer all of the questions she had tried to ask him when they worked together, which he had been unable either to understand or answer.
Schaller does not describe how Ildefonso managed to progress from the very rudimentary ASL she was able to teach him to the complete fluency he acquired later. And it was not only language that Ildefonso lacked when she met him; he knew nothing of time, history, geography, science, or anything that someone who has attended elementary school would know something about, yet somehow, he managed to catch up once he learned ASL. This would appear to contradict the critical period hypothesis for language development.
Despite the dearth of research Schaller found concerning languageless adults, Ildefonso introduced her to a whole group of such people just in his own community. Obviously, there must be many more such people in the world, which makes me wonder why there hasn’t been more research done or attempts to help them participate in the societies they live in.