Book notice: Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices

In Seeing Voices (1989), Sacks delves into the science of Sign language and the Deaf community in general.The Deaf (capital “D”) community is different from the population of hearing impaired persons, and signals the presence of a genuine subculture complete with its own unique language, history, challenges, and triumphs. Sacks explores the powerful and complex ways in which language learning impacts cognitive development. Deprived of the chance to learn a language,a child will grow up “dumb” relative to everyone else in regards to the complexity of their conceptual repertoire. Hence, most deaf persons who were considered “dumb” in previous eras were really victims of not having been taught a language, rather than victims of any “general” cognitive impairment. Furthermore, Sacks relates the struggles of hearing parents to choose between teaching them the arduous process of communicating in the hearing world or choosing the easier route of teaching them Sign. The dilemma is that the hearing and speaking skills take years to develop whereas the teaching of Sign is much more intuitive and happens faster, allowing for an expansion of vocabulary at a young age to provide a cognitive scaffold upon which to build more complicated conceptual schemes. The hearing and talking route takes longer and risks missing “critical periods” of development. Sacks was writing before the development and refinement of cochlear implants, which have only complicated the debate between the relative trade-offs of immersing oneself in the Deaf community with ASL or reaching out to the hearing world.

Sacks also explores the question of whether and to what extent “thinking” is possible independently of language. His conclusions are rather tentative because reports from late language learners is sometimes confounded by their developing “proto-linguistic” systems on their own. Thus, it’s difficult to know how to analyze the famous report of Theophilus d’Estrella that prior to learning a language he was able to formulate thoughts such as “the briny sea is the urine of a great Sea-God’. This report is interesting, but is confounded by the fact that he had devised “home-sign” from earliest childhood. Moreover, given the retrospective nature of the report and the limited sample of one, it’s difficult to verify that his memory of his pre-language days wasn’t contaminated by conceptual structures learned later. However, given the likelihood that “supernatural” thinking is hardwired, it wouldn’t surprise me that some capacity for abstract thinking is possible prior to language learning provided it is restricted to religious domains. In general though, Sacks concludes that learning a language profoundly impacts cognition and makes many of the uniquely human conceptual capacities possible, particularly the step in which a child learns that everything has a name.

Sacks’ book is rich with observations and insights into the Deaf community, as well as the interesting nature of Sign language itself, especially ASL. For a long time it was thought that ASL was not a real language, but merely “idiographic” and parasitic on English grammar. However, research by William Stokoe in the late 1950’s demonstrated that Sign languages have a complex “spatialized” grammar and are complete languages. All in all, Seeing Voices is one of the most interesting of Sacks’ books and well-worth reading if you are at all interested in the interplay between language and thought during child development.

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