Deaf people: reading and thinking

This may sound totally daft, but it kind of relates to the ‘What do blind people dream of’ question.

When I read, I say the words in my head as I read them (I am no speed reader). When I think, I talk to myself in something approximating the voice with which I speak - I just dont engage the physical vocal processes involved in actually talking.

My question is, when people who are totally deaf from birth, read something, how do they do it ?, if they dont know what a voice sounds like (or maybe they do, I just dont know). Do they ‘think’ to themselves in sign language ?

I cant quite get my head round the concept.

Anyone enlighten me please ?

I’ve a couple of questions for you:

Why wouldn’t the Deaf person, who’s learned the word in whatever the written language is not have learned the word in his native language for whatever that written word is?

Why wouldn’t the Deaf person think in his native language?

& take this as just a question, please: You are aware that the Sign Languages are actual languages, with lexicons, grammars, and dialects, aren’t you?

Yes I take your point, maybe my question is being misinterpreted.

I am not trying to imply that people who are deaf, cant read everything. That would be rediculous.

I am talking about the concept of having a ‘voice in your head’ by which words ‘spoken’ by the person, to themselves only.

My wife is partially deaf and works for a deaf charity.
In correspondance she recieves from people who are deaf, it is very noticable that the way some deaf people write is not as hearing people would write - lots of words are missing, and the impression I got, was that they are writing as they would sign.

I did say it might sound totally daft. No offence is intended to anyone.

I don’t mean to hijack the thread, but I think an even more interesting question would be how someone who knows NO language thinks. I am talking about a feral child, a blind deafmute, or just someone who, for the sake of science, was raised without any introduction of any language whatsoever. Would they even think at all, or act impulsively and instinctively much like an animal?

Well, I hope somebody understands what I’m talking about - makes sense to me.

You talk to yourselves dont you ? when you think or when you read words ?

In what form do deaf people do this, is what I am asking, if they have never heard a voice.


Imagine trying to learn when all the education, essentially, is in a language you don’t have access to.

Also imagine having to take notes in a language communicated by sound, which you don’t have access to.

That’s pretty much the state of education for the Deaf in many places. Words missing because a good number of Deaf graduate with a 3rd or 4th Grade reading level in a language not their own. The vast majority of the Deaf are never taught to write their own language (which recently {approximately 30 years ago} gained a writing system). It’s not a surprise then that their writing in English would be different than a native English speaker’s writing in English.

If you’re interested in how Sign Languages may be written today, feel free to check

Btw, I wasn’t offended.


Has there ever been a feral child?

As to a blind Deaf Mute: consider Helen Keller.

Yes, there have been many cases of feral children.

Here is a page that has many articles, including answering exactly what the OP asked.

Many Interesting Articles on the subject

The only way we can truly understand how someone thinks is to actually get inside their head. This is impossible. The closest thing is to describe it with language. The problem is it is difficult for fully literate people to describe just how they think. I would imagine a deaf person would have even more trouble and a blind deaf mute… well forget about it.

Excellent SonOfArizona
So I’m not nuts after all, it was a fair question - that’s a relief.

Thanks again, I shall have a look in more detail at these articles.

Cheers !

Great site.

This article covers exactly what I was after.

How Do The Deaf Think ?

I’ve often wondered this myself. In particular, the feral child example described by SonOfArizona. It begs the question, just how much of our sense of self is a manifestation of language?

SoA: That site gave me a headache. Sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be using any of that dude’s stuff as a reference any time in the near future.

There are a great number of books and articles on this very subject, many of which (or parts thereof) can be found online. The Open Directory Project dedicates a whole category to feral children, so you may want to start there.

I’m deaf, and I signed up just to answer your questions. Don’t you feel special? :slight_smile:

  1. I think in terms of the printed word/printed English. When I lipread, I have to mentally “translate” it into printed words/English.

  2. Deaf people can’t read or write well because they’ve never been strongly encouraged to do so. Sign language has a grammar and vocabulary completely different than English, and inflections are shown by exaggerating a sign on a word. The single sign for “meet”, for example, can be “you meet me”, “he meets him”, “I meet you”, “we meet from very far away” depending on the sign (with no additional “words”).

So it’s only natural that deaf adults don’t “get” grammar, pronouns, adjectives, or such. This is a very common complaint with deaf schools–deaf graduates from these schools have a reading level of a 4th grade child (if that, based on my experience with the graduates).

But, mainstreaming doesn’t work well either. The result of mainstreaming is usually a deaf child who does not have ANY language, rather than just knowing sign language. The only solution, sadly, is one-on-one, intensive, personal tutoring that schools cannot provide–and that most parents cannot give. I’m very fortunate to have such wonderful parents who did put in the effort to teach me proper English… got a 5 on the AP English test. :slight_smile:

Thanks for signing up for this thread, it’s much appreciated.
I was hoping that some deaf Dopers may help out here.

My wife lipreads a lot, but as she has some hearing, I obviously could not ask her to answer my question.

Welcome aboard.

Monty - What was wrong with the site?

" it is very noticable that the way some deaf people write is not as hearing people would write - lots of words are missing"

Actually, the words aren’t missing. What they are writing is called ‘Gloss’. As far as I know Signwriting is not gloss.

The feral question is interesting, however, assuming you could find such a language impaired person, how then would they communicate to you? My general scientific idea is that people think & dream in the language that is given from what senses they have. There are 5 basic senses, thus, even a feral person could dream in touch.

“Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children” by Michael Newton is a recently published book on the subject. Reviews from Salon and the Guardian.

My former deaf girlfriend (meaning she’s not longer my girlfriend, I assume she’s still deaf) used to drop articles from her writing all the time: “a”, “an”, “the”, etc. She also used to drop words that acted to join sentence parts, too. I always assumed sign-language didn’t have these words.

For you deaf responders, does sign language allow you to convey all the ideas that you can express in print? Not just noun-verb stuff, but all the fine degrees that adjectives & adverbs bring. For example, you might could sign “sparkle” but could you convey the nuanced idea of “scintillating”.

Conjuction Junction, what’s your function…

handy’s correct. SignWriting’s not a gloss. It’s a method to record the actual signs (the actual movement) of the language concerned. In other words, it’s the written form of the Sign Language, whereas what you see in this posting is the written form of a particular oral language.

SoA: Layout, odd paragraphing/alignment of text, snipping of what was presented.

dre2xl: Some of what you mentioned is why I want to teach SignWriting to Deaf kindergardners & 1st/2nd Graders after I get my degree.

I get what you’re saying here, but I think you’re conflating two different principles your example. The reason why the correspondence you read seems fragmented and broken is more the result of a BSL speaker trying to write in a second language–the grammar of which is noticeably different than the signer’s L1. To that end, other things being equal, I think you’d see similar results if a native Spanish* speaker were to write in English. For example, there’ll be mistakes in verb subject agreement (e.g. “he run” instead of “he runs”), using “to make” instead of “to do” (e.g. “I need to make my homework”, insertion of bonus articles, etc.

That said, I think the question you’re asking here is (and correct me if I’m wrong) “how does orthography affect phonological perception in the deaf individual?” Or, “what is the interaction between lexical recognition in reading and phonology?”

The above makes for a helluva interesting question(s) but AFAIK, hasn’t seen a whole lot of research. This is, I think, due to the fact that it’s a rather arcane area and there mightn’t be a lot of funding for such projects. (As an aside, I also think that as Sign languages have only recently been recognised as legitimate languages, this field is still in its infancy.)

As I’m not very familiar with this strand of literature, I don’t feel comfortable summarizing, but can point you in the direction of a link or two.
Iris Berent looks at the interaction of reading and phonology. She doesn’t look at it in signers but there’s a couple of good references on her page. [url=]These folks have a project going that focuses on dyslexics. Research done by Usa Goswami is exactly what you’re looking for, but alas, her project runs through 2004.

If you’re looking for more stuff, I found the above sites (and many others) by googling with terms such as phonology, orthograpy, deafness, perception, etc. as keywords.

*I realise that the grammar of Eng and Span. aren’t that different. However, for the sake of an example, it’ll do.