Could Helen Keller Speak?

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Helen Keller's remarkable life has been an inspiration to many. Deaf and blind since birth, she was able to overcome these obstacles and not only get an education but to earn a bachelor of arts degree. She was the first deaf-blind person to ever achieve this and went on to become an author, political activist, and lecturer.

How could she lecture? Well, she could speak! You can listen to her speak in this video. It is difficult to understand her, but some of the words are clear. I suspect that if this old recording was of a higher quality, we'd be able to understand much more. Here, she talks about her biggest regret, that she was not able to learn to speak more clearly. If she had, she believed she would have been able to accomplish much more.

Her Sign Language

Her primary way of communicating was not speech, but a system of sign language. Traditional sign language was of no use to her, so she used a system based on touch. Her close friend Polly Thomson places her hand in Helen's and makes shapes with her hand that Helen can feel. Each shape represents a letter, and Polly runs through them very quickly, forming words and sentences.

But how could a person who had never heard a word nor seen lips forming one ever learn to speak verbally at all? How could someone form words they've never heard? Well, we know a lot about Helen's life because she chronicled much of it, including how she learned to speak.

Helen Says "I Must Speak"

You may not realize that it's fairly remarkable that she even had a desire to speak. She had never heard anyone else doing so, nor even saw them forming words. Speaking would have been somewhat of an abstract concept, at least at first. How can you conceptualize something you've never truly experienced? Think about describing the sky, or even the color blue, to someone like Helen. How would you make her understand? Speech would not be so different. Yet, when she was nine years old, soon to be ten, she spelled out something to her teacher, Miss Sullivan, "I must speak."

On March 26, 1890, Miss Sullivan enlisted the help of Sarah Fuller, the principal of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Helen, along with her teacher and mother, had visited the school two years earlier. Even at that time, Miss Fuller had felt that Helen may be able to learn to speak. She had such a command of English already. At the time, she was not sure it was wise to attempt it, but once asked two years later, she jumped in.

How Helen Keller Learned to Speak

According to Miss Fuller, she showed Helen the parts of the mouth, and the trachea, by placing Helen's hand lightly on them. Then she began to show her how to form letters. She started with the letter i. To do this, she placed Helen's finger in her mouth so that she could feel the position that she had placed her tongue in, just behind the lower front teeth, which were slightly parted, just as you would to make an i sound. Miss Fuller then placed one of Helen's forefingers on her teeth and the other on her trachea, and repeated the letter i several times. Helen concentrated intently, and after Miss Fuller was done, Helen placed her fingers to her own mouth and throat and made her own i sound, remarkably similar to the sound her instructor had made. After she was informed she had made the correct sound, she repeated it again and again.

After that came a long a sound. Then a comparison of the two sounds she had learned. And then on to the letter o.

At this point, Helen did not know whether she was speaking words. After explaining that these were the sounds of letters, which she would use to speak words, Miss Fuller showed Helen her first word. It was the word arm. The first word Helen spoke aloud. She then learned the words mama and papa, which her teacher (Miss Sullivan) suggested. At this point, Helen had no idea of volume. She loudly exclaimed mum mum and pop pop! Miss Fuller corrected her and showed her further how to pronounce the words correctly. This comprised her first lesson, although some accounts differ as to the details. For example, her first word may have been it.

She had but ten lessons in all, but there were numerous conversations in which Helen practiced her speech. After these first lessons, Miss Sullivan took over, using much the same method. According to her, it took Helen only two months to achieve what other students in schools for the deaf took several years to accomplish. And even then they did not speak as plainly. Throughout her life, Helen kept this keen desire for learning. She also had a prodigious memory.

Sullivan can be seen with Helen explaining this system in the video below, although she seems to be indicating that she alone taught Helen to speak, including her very first sounds and her first word, it. Anne Macy Sullivan's impact on Helen's life cannot be measured. She was a wonderful teacher and friend to Helen and the gifts she gave of her life were extraordinary by any standards. Why she chose to ignore Miss Fuller's contribution to the speech lessons I cannot say. Perhaps her memory failed her. Realize that Helen herself has no way to know that Sullivan is saying as she is not signing into Helen's hand. I'm sure Helen would have wanted her friend Sarah to also be remembered. As far as I know, this is the only surviving recording of Anne Sullivan's voice.

Why She Wanted to Speak

Why was Helen so keen to learn to speak? The reason for her desire was revealed in a letter she wrote to Sarah Fuller on April 3, 1890:

My heart is full of joy this beautiful morning because I have learned to speak many new words, and I can make a few sentences. Last evening I want out in the yard and spoke to the moon. I said, "O moon, come to me!" Do you think the lovely moon was glad that I could speak to her? How glad my mother will be. I can hardly wait for June to come, I am so eager to speak to her and to my precious little sister. Mildred could not understand me when I spelled with my fingers, but now she will sit in my lap, and I will tell her many things to please her, and we shall be so happy together…

Helen's simple desire was to be able to talk to her precious little sister. Her power of speech brought her great joy, which she expressed to those around her. She was a perfectionist, though, and would have liked to speak more clearly so that people could better understand her.

Six years after their first lessons, Miss Fuller had the great pleasure to suggest Helen as a speaker for the Fifth Summer meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, held at the Pennsylvania Institution at Mt. Airy. Helen's speech there, which she wrote herself on her typewriter and memorized, was quite successful.

You can read more of this account by downloading the PDF, Helen Keller Learns to Speak.

Helen also learned to lip-read in a similar way. She placed her hands on the lips and throat of a speaker while they spoke and simultaneously spelled out the words in Helen's hand.

Teacher Goes Blind

The image below shows a young Helen Keller with teacher Anne Sullivan seated together outdoors while vacationing on Cape Cod in 1888. Notice that Helen, who is holding a doll, has her face turned to the left. If you peruse photos of her, which are plentiful, you'll notice that she is quite beautiful but that many of them have only the right side of her face shown in profile. This was done because her left eye protruded. Later, both of her eyes were replaced by glass replicas, but this was done purely for cosmetic purposes. Was it possible for Helen to feel self-conscious about her appearance, even though she was blind since birth? Yes. She was as capable of vanity as anyone. While I am as sentimental as anyone about her life, and find her to be one of the most fascinating and powerful women to have ever lived, she was no saint and could be, by all reports, quite high-strung. As well, her relationship with Sullivan was not always peaceful, although it's often portrayed as if they were always in perfect harmony. I think we all know such relationships do not exist and pretending that Helen Keller was incapable of strife, anger, or disagreement, is doing her a disservice. She was a complete human being, like any other and being without sight or hearing had not rendered her an angel. She undoubtedly used her words in anger, from time to time!

Helen Keller with teacher Anne Sullivan, 1888
Helen Keller with teacher Anne Sullivan, 1888

Anne Sullivan, for her part, was in fear of going blind throughout her life. At the age of five, she had lost her vision because of a very bad case of trachoma, which is a bacterial infection of the eye which forms granulomas on the inner surface of the eyelids. Her sight was restored by a series of operations, but she was plagued with recurring granular conjunctivitis and other eye problems. Then, during middle age, her vision start deteriorating and she developed a great sensitivity to light. Even a candle could cause her agonizing pain, and she needed very thick glasses to read.

Her right eye, which developed a cataract and became very painful, had to be removed in 1929. Then her left eye also formed a cataract. By 1934 she was all but blind. She tried a risky operation, but it didn't go well, and she was left with nothing but a slight ability to perceive light and color. Later, she saw only gray splotches.

Posted on 03 Apr 2018 19:08

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