Sound deaf is a real thing

How I became aware of Sign Language (with sound)

Interviewer Stefan Goldschmidt:

You saw earlier in the deaf school that signing was not allowed in the classrooms. In the playground, on the other hand, the children talked lively with each other using gestures. Sign language was not yet recognized at the time and was frowned upon. Was this experience the concrete impulse to take on this topic or were there other influences?

Prof. Dr. Siegmund Prillwitz:

So that was a very important point. But actually I came up with the subject through this literary work. Before that, I had no contact with the deaf or with sign language, neither in relatives nor otherwise, nor as a linguist. When it came to sign language, I had largely succumbed to this prejudice: "Yes, that's probably a makeshift means of being able to somehow communicate something visually."

But when I read all these things, and then also with deaf people like Heiko Zienert or later with you (to the interviewer Stefan Goldschmidt) and Alexander von Meyenn worked together, I saw that the deaf could do something that I couldn't do, namely sign language. And then I discussed with them how the sign language grammar and lexicon etc. Anyway, I just wanted to know: "What is that actually?" So on the one hand the question about sign language, but then also: "What is the life situation of the deaf like?"

It started with a family examination that was published by BELTZ-Verlag. To do this, we examined how communication works in families with deaf children in the first five years of life up to the start of school. And that was pretty frightening to see what wasn't going on there. Then Rolf Schulmeister, Hubert Wudtke and I - we were a team of three on the hearing side - went to the deaf school on Hammer Straße here in Hamburg to watch the lessons there. We were supported by Professor Kröhnert, who had opened the gates for us. And then we just saw what you just described in your question: In the class, strenuous deaf children who really made an effort to somehow come to terms with reading, repeating and articulating, etc. It wasn't really about knowledge, it was always about these few sounds, which you then put together to form certain words and tried to improve. And as I said, when the light signal flashed during the break - by then you had already reached the point where no acoustic bell was served to the deaf - the children were as if they had been exchanged.

Outside in the school yard, we talked to a Dr. Mute (it was really called that) shot a video. He had won a media award and now wanted to invest the money back in a film. The film is called “The Language of the Hands”, was published by SIGNUM Verlag and takes about 20 minutes. In the opening and closing credits, you can see these breaks between the children, who were filmed in the winter. And there you see the deaf children sign with gloves, sometimes with lollipops in their mouths.

I didn't understand anything about it. For me it was just like hearing Chinese or Japanese or another foreign language that you don't understand: You only hear sounds, but you don't even notice where a sentence begins and ends and what it is about goes. And that's exactly how I felt at the moment. I only noticed that they were fully involved, understood each other and how exchanged were compared to this tedious wheel breaking of reading words and articulated words in the classroom.

That was the so-called "German" method, which was the school practice for over a century worldwide and especially in Germany until the 1980s. You can't really blame the educators, because in their training at that time they had hardly learned anything about sign language, and if only negative, which only reinforced the prejudices with which they had grown up. To get rid of these prejudices, to learn a new language and then to practice it in class, you would have had to invest a lot and be a genius to do it. So the teachers weren't sadists or anything. You were trying to teach the children something and do something good. Actually, they were in a similarly dire situation as their students, especially when it became clear that the children had their own language and that lessons could be on a completely different level if one could master and use sign language as a teacher.

And that was the impetus that we - and by "we" I mean the deaf and the people who were active in research and the development of teaching materials, had to get the pedagogical people involved on board as quickly as possible and bring them on board had to provide a way to get to this language. And my advice was always: “You actually have the best teacher in your class.” Because even deaf children had contact with classmates with deaf parents at school at the latest. Most of them grew up with the DGS and through it the other deaf children quickly acquired a large part of German sign language. My idea was always: “Man, why not turn the tables for half an hour every day and let the students tell you how certain texts that are read and processed in class can be signed. The deaf children could explain to me what characters such a signed text consists of and then I could come up with written words. "

This mixture, this permeability in the pedagogical concept was important to me: not to stand as a teacher "above" as a king and know-it-all and to have the small, parched, eager to learn children "below", but that you give and receive something to each other. In my experience, the most successful teachers were those who had the human size to sit next to the children and did not always have the feeling: "I have to teach them something or teach them something". And they have this success not only because they can communicate better with the children, but because the children were of course totally enthusiastic when their beloved teacher (-the children certainly appreciated the teachers-) all of a sudden Sign language, which was always frowned upon, viewed it positively and got involved with them on this level, was even able to learn something from them and in exchange for it the students could perhaps develop a much better written and spoken language. That was always my recommendation.

This can of course always be given quite easily from the outside, but of course it also costs a lot of work and also a bit of changing your own basic attitude. Because you have to change your attitude as a so-called "disabled pedagogue", because then you no longer have primarily "disabled" children but "different language" children, or "additionally disabled children" if, for example, there is still visual impairment. because often it's not just the hearing impairment. But that was never the problem in the past in education: Multiple handicapped deaf children - you have always been allowed to go with them! A bit following the motto that always came up: “Well, you can't spoil anything, it won't work with spoken language anyway.” And it was probably also because sign language was actually completely wrongly assessed, namely only as a minimal understanding and not at all as what it has now proven itself to be worldwide, namely as a full-fledged sign system with a very complex grammar and a lexicon that can be infinitely differentiated and follows certain rules.

This scientific recognition of sign language was the great merit of the mixed teams of deaf and hearing people, not only in a single country such as Sweden, Germany or the USA, but worldwide on all continents. At the end of the 1980s we organized several international high-profile congresses in Hamburg's CCH to promote awareness among the media, politics, parents and professional associations, without that nothing would have changed. There is still film material of this and it was fascinating to see that a dozen interpreters were sitting in front of the stage and trying to translate every speaker up there, whether deaf or hearing, into the respective national sign language.

These were all important things and in retrospect I have to say, also as a compliment to the hearing and deaf employees at the time: At no point in time could you have expected the situation for the deaf and their sign language to change as rapidly as it did worldwide has been the case, not only in Germany, over the past 30 years. And special recognition goes to the deaf, who had entered a stage on which they were never allowed to go before: studies, research, teaching - suddenly there were deaf teachers for deaf children - demanding vocational training, etc.

And all of this has resulted in relatively few upheavals. Often people take off when a whole new dimension suddenly opens up to them and that's how it was for the deaf. But the deaf scene, especially in the university area, was actually very disciplined and strenuous in terms of content and at the same time managed to do all of this not only for their own career, but also to carry it on as implementation for their own language community, i.e. courses to develop and teach deaf teachers and parents in sign language and to get involved in such an intermediate construct as spoken language-accompanying sign.

The LBG topic was actually the most difficult, but it was necessary as a kind of hinge, as a transition for the hearing people, especially teachers and parents, so that they didn't just suddenly feel that they were speech-impaired and speechless. This problem had to be resolved somehow and there was a long argument about it, in which questions such as: “What is LBG, that is, spoken language-accompanying sign?” And “What is real DGS?” Were raised. But these were also constructive discussions and some of them still are today.

The whole thing went step by step and I think that it would not have progressed so quickly and continuously in science and research as well as in educational practice if the deaf community had not organized itself politically. She did that, stronger than before. And she has also freed herself from the guardianship of even the most kind and committed listeners: When I think back to the time in which Uli Hase led demonstrations for “sign language on television” and the deaf community campaigned for “seeing instead of Hearing “a deaf person takes over the moderation and those who do not hear again try to serve the deaf in a deaf program. So what went on there is fascinating.

Actually, I always wish that we had had a chronicler during this time who would have recorded everything piece by piece, because in retrospect you can no longer really grasp it all. But we have something similar: “Das Zeichen”, a thick, illustrated quarterly magazine that is still being published. These developments around these points of contention and the discussions are very solidly and extensively depicted and presented very nicely. That is Karin Wempe's life's work to this day and hopefully for decades to come. In other countries there is seldom a magazine like this in this detailed and qualitative form. Unfortunately, the early volumes are all out of print, but they are still in libraries. In it you can unravel a lot of things and trace back how a certain discussion has presented itself in the scene, in Germany but also internationally. That would be my tip, if you really want to know something more specific, you should scroll through the decades in the “sign”. Every decade has a table of contents and if you are interested in a certain area, e.g. school, kindergarten or research, language policy and much more, you can read there how such a development has taken place over 10, 20, 30 years.