Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Seeing Voices

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist of some renown. He has written some fascinating books on the working of the mind: the most famous are "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", and "Musicophilia". "Seeing Voices" is a short book about the deaf.

When I first picked up the book, I wondered if brain development for deaf people is very different from that of hearing people. Oliver's book lists the various ways in which language development suffers if a deaf person isn't allowed to sign naturally, or if he doesn't have access to other people who sign. I didn't know much about sign language before reading the book. Sign language isn't a simple translation of English or Hindi into gestures. Rather, it has its own idioms, its own grammar. So sign has a notion of poetry and of puns.

Oliver lists various cases of deaf people whose parents did not sign. When these children grew up and finally encountered signing, a world of language opened up to them. This process is beautifully described, and provides valuable insights into the working of the language part of the brain. For example, without language, there was no way to describe time: today versus tomorrow blend in if there is no way to describe them.

There are also examples of a few hearing individuals whose language development has been artificially suppressed. These examples showed how both hearing and non-hearing individuals pick up language in similar manner.

"Seeing Voices" is a great book to read if you have a small child in the house. Children learn sign language faster than spoken language. Spoken language requires a complicated co-ordination of the vocal chords, and these develop rather late in children. Sign language requires arm motion which children acquire rather early. Based on this, many hearing parents teach their children sign language. From an early age, the child learns how to express himself: pain, hunger, boredom, and a need for mommy, daddy, or sibling. This allows for a limited communication between parent and child, removing frustrations on both ends.

After reading this book, I could think of many friends who would love to read this. You don't need to be interested in neuroscience, language development, child development, or the world of the deaf to love this book. This short book makes you aware of language, and gives you much to consider about.