300 year system for teaching the deaf discovered

Dr. John Wallis served as chief cryptographer for Parliament

The small, leather-bound manual written by Dr. John Wallis reveals that he understood that deaf people could communicate and that speaking was separate from communicating. This 300-year-old manual contains some of the earliest examples of attempts to teach the deaf to communicate. The manual belonged to Alexander Popham, a deaf teenager from a noble English family who was taught to speak in the 1660s. The leather-bound notebook was discovered in 2008 at a stately English manor called Littlecote House.

The finding suggests that one of the boy’s tutors, John Wallis, was a few hundred years ahead of his time in understanding that deaf people needed their own language to communicate, said linguist David Cram of the University of Oxford. Wallis also likely made use of a rudimentary method of sign language, Cram said.

“Wallis made the point that in order to teach a deaf person our language, the language of the hearing, we had to learn their language,” Cram told LiveScience. “He certainly would have made use of sign language and also of a writing system.”

In order to preserve young Popham’s social status, his mother Lady Wharton  who had re-married after her husband and Alexanders father Francis passed away,  asked two Renaissance Men of the period, Dr.Wallis and William Holder, to teach him to speak.

Amazingly, Popham learned to communicate and speak with what at the time is described as  ‘plainly and distinctly, and with a good and graceful tone’  became a minor celebrity of the era and was even presented at court, Cram said. He eventually married the daughter of one of the leading intellectual women of the 17th century.

In later years, Wallis and Holder disputed who should get credit for teaching Popham to speak. While Holder was the first to tutor Popham and may have first coaxed the boy to say words, there’s no doubt that Wallis was the one who taught Popham to use those words to communicate, Cram said.

“It’s not clear that Holder was doing anything more than trying to get someone to produce words parrot-fashion,” Cram said. After Holder left his job as Popham’s tutor, Wallis took his place. The small, leather-bound manual written by Wallis reveals that he understood that deaf people could communicate and that speaking was separate from communicating — in other words, being able to produce sounds doesn’t mean you can make yourself understood. Nor is speech the only way to communicate. The book contains detailed explanations of vocal articulation, but also figures and signs and exercises in phonetics, syntax and sentence construction.

“Wallis made the point that a really profoundly deaf person will need to be taught to communicate before they articulate,” he said.

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