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A Man Without Words

Susan Schaller (1991)


"Ildefonso." I was surprised at how much security I derived from knowing his name. My brain, unlike his, found reality more real, more defined, when it was named. I could not imagine a nameless world, empty of all the information given me via a million names and words, and I wished it were possible to peer into his name-free brain. (31)

He broke through. He understood. He had forded the same river Helen Keller did at the water pump when she suddenly connected the water rushing over her hand with the word spelled into it. Yes, w-a-t-e-r and c-a-t mean something. And the cat-meaning in one head can join the cat-meaning in another's head just by tossing out a cat. . . . But a suddenly as he had asked for names, he turned pale, collapsed, and wept. . . . He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and a table all had names, and the fruit of his knowledge had opened his eyes to evil. He could see the prison where he had existed alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years. (44-5)

She knew of no one who had studied first language acquisition in adults. There were the accounts of "wild" persons who were found from time to time, but she didn't think they would be useful to me, since children, deaf, wild, or normal, differ greatly from adults in language acquisition. The human brain changes dramatically from infancy to post-puberty, making language learning a completely different task for an adult. (65-6)

His mind was certainly not a tabula rasa; thousands of experiences and sensations had etched impressions and stimulated thinking. But his mind was empty of all information that needs language as its conduit. It didn't matter how smart he was. (74)

Compared to Ildefonso, I was a god. Like a Martian who befriends the first earthling he meets, Ildefonso mistook me for the leader of my planet. He couldn't know that most of my language and information was shared and common. (75)

I explained that I had met a man without language who told me about his encounters with green men. I was writing about this man, and it would help me to understand more about his life if I knew how the Border Patrol worked.
"How do you know this man had anything to do with immigration officials?" the boy asked. I repeated the "green" story that Ildefonso had told me while wondering what impression Ildefonso would have had of this tall Aryan.
"How do you know this man's an illegal resident?" he persisted. "I mean, we have to go to school to learn how to know if someone's an illegal resident."
"Well, I just assumed he was, because his story implied that he had been arrested." . . . Because he looked at me suspiciously, I explained that I wasn't really interested in the Border Patrol itself, just in this man's life.
"You say you're writing a book about this man, but how do I know you're not a reporter? I'm not supposed to be talking to anyone. You need to talk to my superior." (94-5)

Ildefonso told me months later that his leisure activity was watching people. He found crowded places, sat in a central location by a fountain or sculpture, and watched the pedestrians, studying the way they dressed, walked, talked, and touched. He saw giggling, kissing, playing, and fighting, human games in which he could not participate. His first history lesson and our other dialogues began to eliminate some of the mystery of the human interactions he liked to observe. I wished his first lessons had been on the ideals of Athenian democracy or the peace-loving Hopi tribe or the greatest inventions and discoveries in history, instead of green men and the unfortunate significance of the color of one's skin. (100-01)

He possessed what Luria refers to as an inner life. "Regardless of how primitive or abbreviated language may be," Luria writes, "it is pivotal to cognition; by means of it we designate numbers, perform mathematics, calculations, analyze our perceptions, distinguish the essential from the inessential, and form categories of distinct impressions. Apart from being a means of communication, language is fundamental to perception and memory, thinking and behavior. It organizes our inner life." Ildefonso had some sort of inner life, but without language and information, thoughts and ideas from others, it could not be complete. (105-06)

"Who? Birthday who?" Ildefonso asked. I started to explain the origins of Christmas, but felt uncomfortable looking into his wide-open eyes. He didn't have enough language to understand the difference between religious beliefs and facts about multiplication or political boundaries. Since I couldn't explain the difference between a belief and a fact, he would assume that the idea that Jesus is God's son was as universally accepted as "This is called a chair" and "Blacks came from Africa." (127)

He undoubtedly had gone to church every Sunday. What did he think of all the icons and pictures, the altar, the incense and priestly robes, the raised silver goblet and white wafers held out to the people filing by? Was it any stranger to him than watching people reset their clocks or argue on television? (128-9)

He paused and frowned and asked me, "Why do people have such big places?" He mimed people grabbing things to their chest and accumulating great possessions, then he described the wealth around us. He compared this to the poverty in Mexico and looked sad and thoughtful. Language didn't help to explain some things in the world. (130)

Sometimes I read or heard arguments about thinking and language. "Can we think without language?" I heard someone ask. "No, of course not," someone else answered. Everything I read or heard was purely abstract, hypothetical, and speculative. (132)

I met and informally interviewed the other teachers. Almost everyone had stories about teaching a prelingual adult. . . . How could such a gulf exist between the universities and the streets? How could a researcher consider a prelingual deaf adult learning language a once-in-a-lifetime happening when four were sitting at the same table only a few miles away? (146)

As I entered the smoke-filled room, Dr. McKinney waved her left hand in the direction of the only empty chair.
"I thought you were in a graduate program," she said at once, explaining that she had no idea I was writing on my own, although I had never indicated otherwise in our four months of communication.
I explained that I had become interested in writing something, at least an article or two, when I discovered how little had been written. Since people in university settings seemed ignorant of languagelessness, I thought it more productive to stay outside of academic circles. She agreed about the academic perspective but counseled me to go through the system in order to change it. She would not help me, she continued, now that she realized that I was not affiliated with a university. "Why should I help you with your commercial enterprise?" she asked.
I sat speechless, trying to understand how my interest could be interpreted as a commercial enterprise. Carefully, I explained that my curiosity and interest developed during and after my work with Ildefonso. I repeated how delighted I was to meet her and observe her program. She had more information than perhaps anyone in the United States on the language acquisition of deaf adults. The world, according to the card catalogs and the people I had met, was ignorant and needed this information. She had far more expertise and experience than I, and I would be more than happy to assist her. It would be far better for her to publish the information.
"I haven't the time. There is too much to be done here," she sighed, and lit another cigarette. She explained how difficult it was to get grants and contributions to keep the center open. She would probably have to lay off some of the faculty in the fall. I repeated my offer to help her. I could organize the information in her files, count the number of people that had learned their first language through her program, and note their progress. She could supervise, and she could publish.
I don't think she paid any attention. She didn't want to show me any of her files and concluded with, "If you were in a Ph.D. program, I'd help you because then I'd know you would be a future colleague." She had work to do; I was no longer welcome. I stared at the filing cabinet where lay clues about many once languageless minds, now closed, locked, and guarded by this woman and her clouds of smoke. (147)

We credit language with playing an enormous role in personality and moral development, mental health and intelligence, but the differences between Ildefonso and wild children challenge us to re-examine what gives us our human attributes. (156)

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