The French pioneer in deaf education, Abbé de l'Eppé, demonstrates the teaching of deaf children in front of the French King Louis XVI.
The French pioneer in deaf education, Abbé de l'Eppé, demonstrates the teaching of deaf children in front of the French King Louis XVI. Swiss Federation of the Deaf SGB-FSS

Switzerland's role in deaf education

Around 400 years ago, scholars began to address the education of deaf people and developed sign language for the first time. Switzerland played an interesting, complex and perhaps outsized role in this process.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

During the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, scholars, philosophers, and physicians began to refute long held claims that deaf people were imbeciles, incapable of critical thinking and learning how to communicate.

Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.

The Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment challenged the ways in which Europeans conceived the world around them. Increased faith in reason, as well as a desire on the part of educators, philosophers, and scholars to achieve and disseminate rational and abstract thought, mitigated repressive social and cultural attitudes towards deaf people. Geronimo Cardano (1501-1576), an Italian mathematician and polymath, was among the first to theorize that the inability to hear did not correlate with an innate inability to learn. However, it was a priest from Aragón, Juan Pablo Bonet (c. 1570-1633), who authored the first book on deaf education in 1620: Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (Summary of the letters and the art of teaching speech to the mute). Therein, he created a manual alphabet for the purposes of deaf education. Bonet's manual alphabet proved to be revolutionary; in time, it would shape the development of Spanish Sign Language, French Sign Language, and American Sign Language. Inspired by Bonet’s work, the English John Bulwer (1606-1656) became the first to propose an academy of learning exclusively for deaf individuals through his work Dumbe Mans Academie (1648).
The ABC of the Deaf by Juan Pablo Bonet, 1620.
The ABC of the Deaf by Juan Pablo Bonet, 1620.

A Swiss Godfather of Deaf Education

Interest in the deaf continued to grow across the continent as the Scientific Revolution reached its apex. The question of how best to educate and integrate deaf people into society precipitated debate and commentary across Switzerland as well. Johann Konrad Ammann (1669-1724), an expert in the physiology of speech, was particularly intrigued. Born in Schaffhausen to a family renowned for its scholars and doctors, Ammann received his doctorate in medicine in Basel at the age of 18 in 1687. After falling in love with the Dutch countryside and a Dutch woman, he relocated to Amsterdam where he enjoyed a successful career as a physician, translator, and educator. Historians do not know when precisely Ammann became interested in working with the deaf, but it is known that he undertook his first experiments with a wealthy young woman from Haarlem in 1690. In only two months, he was able to teach her how to read and write, and speak slowly through his own methodology.
Johann Konrad Ammann in a painting by Friedrich Wettstein. The painting was destroyed on 1 April 1944 by American bombs dropped on the Museum Allerheiligen Schaffhausen.
Johann Konrad Ammann in a painting by Friedrich Wettstein. The painting was destroyed on 1 April 1944 by American bombs dropped on the Museum Allerheiligen Schaffhausen. Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen
Ammann became convinced that his deaf students ought to practice imitating the lip and throat movements of the non-deaf, as this would prompt them to start uttering letters, syllables, words, and thereafter entire sentences. His method thus aimed to teach the deaf to speak through a mixture of sight reading and physical vibration in alternation. Assured that speaking was a natural expression of mankind, Ammann was not keen in teaching sign language or fingerspelling. Such instruction would only serve to distract a pupil from what he considered to be the natural process of language learning. While living in the Netherlands, Ammann published several theoretical works, which touched upon the topic of deaf education. His seminal works Surdus loquens (1692) – (The Talking Deaf Man) and Dissertatio de loquela (1700) – (A Dissertation on Speech) – were eventually translated into several modern languages. These works were as thought-provoking as they were popular, and Ammann became one of the most-quoted-and-cited authors of the eighteenth century as a result.

I first put his hand on my larynx. Then I put his hand to his own throat and, by means of signs, urged him to produce the same shaking of the larynx that he had perceived in me. It is usually possible to elicit a sound from the student on the first try. Now I teach him to form the mouth opening in such a way that it is necessary for speaking the individual vowels.

Ammann’s methods with a student delineated in "Surdus loquens".
Title page of Surdus loquens by Johann Konrad Ammann, 1692.
Title page of Surdus loquens by Johann Konrad Ammann, 1692. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

The Debate moves to Paris and Leipzig

Despite Ammann’s critical acclaim and popularity, it was Paris and not Amsterdam, which emerged the nexus of deaf education due to the efforts of Charles-Michel de L'Épée (1712-1789). Although born into a family of affluence and prestige at Versailles, L'Épée chose to become a Catholic priest and minister to the poor. L'Épée became intrigued by the deaf after a chance encounter in which he encountered deaf women who expressed themselves solely through sign language in a Parisian slum. After learning sign language from the Parisian deaf community, L'Epée developed his own system of "methodical signs" as a language, which he believed could be utilized in formal educational instruction. With determination, L'Épée opened the Parisian Institut National des Jeunes Sourds in several stages between 1750-1760. His was the world’s public school for deaf children. L'Épée believed passionately that deaf students should not only learn how to speak but also how to read. At L’Épée’s school, students therefore learned spoken and written French through sign language. L'Epée's ideas received a warm reception in Switzerland. Heinrich Keller (1728-1802), a pastor at Schlieren, and his assistant, Johann Conrad Ulrich (1761-1828,) met and studied with L'Epée in Paris. Keller later attempted to set up his own school for the deaf in Zürich but was unable to find adequate resources. Private initiatives later facilitated the founding of the first deaf schools in Switzerland during the first decades of the nineteenth century.
The French Sign Language Alphabet with a portrait by Charles-Michel de L'Épée.
The French Sign Language Alphabet with a portrait by Charles-Michel de L'Épée. Wellcome Collection
As L'Épée’s ideas criss-crossed Europe, one man challenged L’Épée’s methodology publically: Samuel Heinicke (1727-1790). Born in Nautschütz, Germany, and originally a teacher of music and composition, Heinicke was an accomplished scholar who studied natural sciences and philosophy at Jena University. After the conclusion of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), he worked in Eppendorf, located outside of Hamburg, where he taught deaf children to speak. Heinicke’s beliefs strongly echoed those of Ammann, whose works Heinicke read and consulted in their German translations. Heinicke regarded sign language as a hindrance to the abstract thinking process of deaf people who merely wished to learn how to speak. Sign language, in his estimation, was a minor tool that should not be used too often by students. He opined further that L’Épée placed too much emphasis on the learning of sign language, believing that this would stymy intellectual and linguistic development concurrently. Championing the necessity of lipreading, elocution, and articulation as a means through which deaf people could learn their native language, Heinicke established his own school – Die Chursächsische Institut für Stumme und andere mit Sprachgebrechen behaftete Personen – in Leipzig in 1778.

Religion and humanity inspire me with such a great interest in a truly destitute class of persons who, though similar to ourselves, are reduced, as it were, to the condition of animals so long as no attempts are made to rescue them from the darkness surrounding them, that I consider it an absolute obligation to make every effort to bring about their release from these shadows.

Charles-Michel de L'Épée in his book «La véritable manière d'instruire les sourds et muets, confirmée par une longue expérience» (1784).

Zurich scholars settle the dispute

L’Épée and Heinicke launched the firing salvos in the first major public debate with regard to deaf education. In true Enlightenment fashion, the two corresponded with one another throughout the 1780s, defending their respective arguments and theoretical positions in Latin. (Heinicke did not know French much to L’Épée’s dismay.) Despite their respective differences of opinion, L’Épée and Heinicke agreed that deaf people ought to be educated, taught to speak properly, and be treated with dignity as full-fledged members of society. Indeed, they regarded the participation of the deaf in civil society as indicative of a rational, civilized society. The real fundamental disagreement between them lay in the degree of how much sign language should be used within the classroom, and whether the training of speech ought to take prominence. Eager to have the matter judged and arbitrated through an impartial tribunal, L’Epée scoured across Europe to find a learned, prestigious body that would settle their debate. L’Épée ultimately turned his attention to Switzerland, appealing to what he called the "Académie de Zurich." This was a prestigious body consisting of scholars from the Gymnasium and the Collegium Carolinum, the forerunner of the University of Zurich. The “Académie,” after much deliberation over the arguments of L’Epée and Heinicke, decided in favor of L’Epée in 1783.
Deaf actors and actresses of the "Hackney Mission to the Deaf and Dumb" perform plays. Woodcut from 1884 (detail).
Deaf actors and actresses of the "Hackney Mission to the Deaf and Dumb" perform plays. Woodcut from 1884 (detail). Wellcome Collection
The heated debate over methodologies was not entirely settled, however. At the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan in 1880, educators rejected the original recommendation made by the scholars of Zurich. They concluded that signing should be discouraged in schools for the deaf, and ample time ought to be placed on speaking and lipreading. As a consequence, signing on school grounds was strictly forbidden in Switzerland – teachers administered corporal punishment to students who they caught signing. It was not uncommon for deaf students to have their hands tied behind their backs to prevent them from signing during class time. Even Franz Eugen Sutermeister (1862-1931), the founder of the Swiss Welfare Association for the Deaf and Dumb (currently Sonos), believed in strict discipline for deaf students and a prohibition against sign language. Liberalization occurred largely through deaf activism in the late-1970s and early-1980s, which led to increased governmental protection of the deaf in Switzerland.
Also in sign language there is diversity in Switzerland: In the sign language lexicon of the Swiss Federation of the Deaf this diversity becomes visible even for people who do not know sign language, here with the example of the word "history" in the standardised Swiss-German sign language, the French sign language and the Italian sign language. Swiss Federation of the Deaf SGB-FSS
Discussion surrounding the role, place, and usage of sign language in Switzerland remains continuous. With its unique grammar and syntax, as well as its emotive expressions, sign language adds further linguistic diversity to multilingual Switzerland. Five regional sign language dialects exist in German-speaking Switzerland – in Zürich, Bern, Basel Stadt, Luzern, and St. Gallen – in addition to standardized Swiss German Sign Language, French Sign Language and Italian Sign Language. It is estimated that a million Swiss are hearing-impaired, including about 10,000 people who were either born deaf or became so in early childhood through accidental causes or illness. Switzerland is one of the few countries in Europe still not to have recognized sign language as an official language. In recent years, however, the Swiss Federal Council has considered evaluating and elevating the legal status of sign language. Switzerland added sign languages to its list of living traditions, recognising them in turn as intangible cultural heritage in August 2023. Efforts are currently underway to spearhead the process of cantonal recognition of sign language in Vaud, Bern, and Ticino. The cantonal constitutions of Zürich and Geneva already make explicit mention of sign language, while the Gender Equality Act encompasses the use of sign language and protects deaf culture in Basel.

Multilingual Switzerland

15.09.2023 14.01.2024 / National Museum Zurich
In Switzerland, you can hear countless dialects, accents, types of slang and immigrant languages in addition to the four national languages. Visit the National Museum Zurich for a sensory journey through Switzerland’s language areas. Find out through interactive sound technology how the predecessors of our languages emerged, evolved or died out, how new linguistic and cultural borders arose and how they were (and still are) disputed.

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