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How Helen Keller Learned To Speak

Creator: Sarah Fuller (author)
Date: 1892
Publication: American Annals of the Deaf
Source: Available at selected libraries


As principal of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, Massachusetts, Sarah Fuller represented a new and predominantly female generation of teachers of deaf children. In the years after the Civil War, women increasingly moved into the public sphere, attending college and taking jobs outside the home; school superintendents also found female teachers to be ideal employees because they could be paid less than men and were considered to be more patient and selfless. Female teachersí low salaries proved especially important in the subfield of oral deaf education, since teaching deaf children how to lip-read and speak was an immensely time-consuming task. In this report, Fuller gives a sense of the painstaking work involved with teaching Helen Keller to speak.

Kellerís work with Fuller reflected another new trend in deaf education: the shift from boarding schools to day schools. Unlike manualist educators (those who used sign language), oralist teachers believed that deaf children should be isolated from other deaf people and be encouraged to interact with hearing relatives and friends as much as possible. Therefore, oralist educators sought to make it possible for deaf children to live at home and attend specialized schools (or day schools) nearby. The Horace Mann School that Fuller headed and at which Keller took lessons was one of these new day schools for deaf children.

For Keller, learning to speak was a liberating experience, albeit one requiring immense effort on her part. Keller felt that speech would enable her to communicate far more easily with her family and friends. Later on, she explained that speech allowed her to think more quickly (as opposed to fingerspelling or Braille) and made her more useful, since she could interact with far more people. As shown in this report, Kellerís reflections on learning speech reinforced oralist mantras: that unlike sign language, speech would allow deaf people to communicate with relatives and integrate into the community. Oralists such as Sarah Fuller and Alexander Graham Bell, however, never acknowledged that Kellerís speech was barely comprehensible to anyone except themselves and Anne Sullivan.

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* Read before the meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, at Lake George, New York, July, 1891, by Miss SARAH FULLER, Principal of the Horace Mann School, Boston, Mass.


POSSIBLY I cannot better begin an account of the way in which Helen Keller was taught to speak than by reading a letter, written by herself, in response to my wish to know how it happened that she came to wish to speak:


SOUTH BOSTON, MASS., April 3, 1890.


MY DEAR MISS FULLER: 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 went 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. Are you very, very happy because you can make so many people happy? I think you are very kind and patient, and I love you very dearly.


My teacher told me Tuesday that you wanted to know how I came to wish to talk with my mouth. I will tell you all about it, for I remember my thoughts perfectly. When I was a very little child I used to sit in my mother's lap nearly all the time, because I was very timid, and did not like to be left by myself, and I would keep my little hand on her face all the while, because it amused me to feel her face and lips move when she talked with people. I did not know then what she was doing, for I was quite ignorant of all things. Then, when I was older, I learned to play with my nurse and the little negro children, and I noticed that they kept moving their lips just like my mother; so I moved mine, too, but sometimes it made me angry, and I would hold my playmates' mouths very hard. I did not know then that it was very naughty to do so. After a long time my dear teacher came to me, and taught me to communicate with my fingers, and I was satisfied and happy. But when I came to school in Boston I met some deaf people who talked with their mouths like all other people, and one day a lady who had been to Norway came to see me and told me of a blind and deaf girl she had seen in that faraway land, who had been taught to speak and understand others when they spoke to her. This good and happy news delighted me exceedingly, for then I was sure that I should learn also.


I tried to make sounds like my little playmates, but teacher told me that the voice was very delicate and sensitive, and that it would injure it to make incorrect sounds, and promised to take me to see a kind and wise lady who would teach me rightly. That lady was yourself. Now I am as happy as the little birds, because I can speak, and perhaps I shall sing, too. All of my friends will be so surprised and glad.


Your loving little pupil,




The first intimation to me of Helen's desire to speak was on the twenty-sixth of March, 1890, when her teacher, Miss Sullivan, called upon me with Helen and asked me to help her to teach Helen to speak, "For," said she, "Helen has spelled upon her fingers, 'I must speak.'" As I had, nearly two years before, expressed my belief in the possibility of her acquiring speech, I was glad to know that she was to be allowed to make an attempt to use her vocal organs, and began immediately to familiarize her with the position and condition of the various mouth parts, and with the trachea. This I did by passing her hand lightly over the lower part of my face, and by putting her fingers into my mouth. She quickly appreciated that the teeth enclose the tongue, which fills the entire mouth cavity; that the tongue and lips are exceedingly soft and delicate, and very flexible; that the lower jaw moves up and down, and that the course of the trachea may be followed as it passes down behind the long framework of the chest. I then placed my tongue in the position for the sound of i in it, and let her find the point as it lay perfectly still and soft in the bed of the jaw, just behind the lower front teeth, and discover that the teeth were slightly parted. After this investigation, I placed one of her forefingers upon my teeth, and the other upon my throat or trachea, at the lowest point where it may be felt, and repeated the sound "i" several times. During this time, Helen, standing in front of me, in the attitude of one listening intently, gave the closest attention to every detail, and when I ceased making the sound, her fingers flew to her own mouth and throat, and after arranging her tongue and teeth she uttered the sound "i" so nearly like that I had made it seemed like an echo of it. When told that she had given the sound correctly, she repeated it again and again. I next showed her, by means of her sensitive fingers, the depression through the centre of the tongue when in position for the sound of "√§" and the opening between the teeth during the utterance of that sound. Again she waited with her fingers upon my teeth and throat until I sounded "√§" several times, and then she gave the vowel fairly well. A little practice enabled her to give it perfectly. We then repeated the sound of "i" and contrasted it with "√§." Having these two differing positions well fixed in her mind, I illustrated the position of the tongue and lips while sounding the vowel "√ī." She experimented with her own mouth, and soon produced a clear, well-defined "√ī." After acquiring this she began to ask what the sounds represented, and if they were words, and I then told her that "i" is one of the sounds of the letter I, that "√§" is one of the sounds of the letter A, and that some letters have many different sounds, but that it would not be difficult for her to think of these sounds after she had learned to speak words. I next took the position for "√§," Helen following as before with her fingers, and while sounding the vowel, closed my lips, producing the word arm. Without hesitation she arranged her tongue, repeated the sounds, and was delighted to know that she had pronounced a word. Her teacher suggested to her that she should let me hear her say the words mamma and papa, which she had tried to speak before coming to me, and she quickly and forcibly said " mum mum, pup pup." I commended her effort, and said that it would be better to speak very softly, and to sound one part of the word longer than she did the other. I then illustrated what I wanted her to understand by pronouncing the word mamma very delicately, and at the same time drawing my finger along upon the back of her hand to show the relative length of the two syllables. After a few repetitions, the words mamma, papa, came almost with musical sweetness from her lips.

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Notes of this and of all but two of the other lessons were unfortunately destroyed, so that I cannot give in detail an outline of the work with Helen from day to day. One of these two papers has no date, but I think it contains the second lesson. It records the vowels √ī, i, √Ę, √§, u, and the consonants m, b, p, n, d, t, k, g, s, r, and y. The other, marked Fifth Lesson, records that I gave Helen the vowels u, √§, i, e, i, a, √ī, √Ľ, and u, which she was to practise with her teacher, associating them with the following words: cup, son, young; father, arm, aunt; pipe, pie, cry; me, eat, teeth; pin, baby, curtain; slate, nail, day; boot, rude; foot, put; tube, few. The consonants associated with words were p, in cup; b, in tub; m, in come; t, in cut; d, in do; n, in in; c, in cuff; g, in go; s, in some; f, in muff; w, in one; wh, in what. The other consonants upon this paper, v, r, and the double consonants tr, dr, br, are not written with key-words, so I conclude that more drill upon them was needed before allowing her to use them in words.


The plan with her was this: to develop, at each lesson, new elements, review those previously learned, listen to all of the combinations she could make with the consonants as initial and final elements, and construct sentences with the words resulting from the combinations. In the intervals between the lessons she practised these with Miss Sullivan.


She really had but ten lessons, although she was with me at other times, talking freely, but not under instruction. She was an ideal pupil, for she followed every direction with the utmost care, and seemed never to forget anything told to her.


On the day she had her seventh lesson, she and her teacher were invited with me to lunch at the house of a friend. While on our way there Miss Sullivan remarked that she wished Helen would use the sentences she had learned, and added that she seemed very unwilling to do so. It at once occurred to me that the cause of her reluctance was her conscientious care to pronounce every word perfectly, and so, in the moments I had with her during our visit, I encouraged her to talk freely with me, while I refrained entirely from making corrections. She was much interested in the bric-a-brac in the various rooms, and asked a great many questions, using speech constantly, and when, just before we left the house, my friend took her upon his knee, she inquired of him about his boyhood, his studies, and his early home. She told him about her studies, and her home and family. Early in the day she had said to me that she would tell me of her visit to Dr. Holmes, and as I thought this a favorable time to listen to her story, I reminded her of her promise. Seeing that she was so much interested in what she was about to say that she thought of speech only as a vehicle for thought, I noted her words as she spoke them. There were, I think, but four which I did not readily understand, and those I asked her to spell upon her fingers:


One bright Sunday afternoon, a few weeks ago, I went to see a kind poet, named Dr. Holmes. He was sitting in his beautiful library, with a great many books around him, and a cheerful fire. I think the poet must be happy with so many friends near him. Teacher told me that the Charles river was flowing beneath the library window. Dr. Holmes said that he loved that gentle river very dearly. I had read many of his poems and known some of them. I liked them very much. I liked them before I thought of putting my arms around his neck and telling him that he gave pleasure to me and all blind children, because his poems are in raised letters.


Dr. Holmes is an old gentleman. I talked to him and looked at the beautiful things, and he gave me a stamp-box. He showed me a picture of his house, and he gave me a picture of himself. The house was the house in which he wrote about in his poems, "The Opening of the Piano."


Her pronunciation of some words was peculiar because of her dividing them into syllables, as "lov-ed," "nam-ed," "plea-su-re." She did not hesitate in her attempts to pronounce any word that she wished to use to express her thought. In saying "good-bye" to an aged sister of the gentleman who had been spending the winter with him, she said, "He must have been very happy to have you here." Her enjoyment of this, her first experience in the real use of speech, was touchingly expressed in her remark to Miss Sullivan, when seated in the street car on her way home that afternoon, "I am not dumb now."


A still greater freedom in the use of speech was shown in a conversation which she held with Mr. Bell, Miss Sullivan, and myself two weeks later. We spelled our questions upon our fingers, but she replied orally.


Do you know what a cloud is?
What is rain?
Where does the rain come from?
From the ocean.
From the ocean; how?
It falls down.
How does it come from the ocean?
It rises up.
What makes it rise up?
The waves -- sun and waves.
Have you been upon the ocean?
Yes; I went in a steamboat to Plymouth. The ocean is very large and deep.
What do you think about the wind?
I think the wind is not as gentle as the breeze.
What is wind?
Air. It is wild air.
Where does the wind come from, and where does it go to?
It comes from the waves beating against the shore, and it makes the wind.
Where does the wind go to?
Back to the water. When the waves are very gentle, it goes to the sea, deep, deep sea. When the sea is very gentle, then the wind stops and goes to another place. The sea is the mother wave of the wind and waves.
What is the sun?
What is heat?
It is like a fire.
What is a fire?
It is heat.
Here is a hard question. What is thought?
When we make a mistake, we say, I thought it was right.
Are you thinking now?
I am trying to think. Sometimes we are thinking about something in our heads.
Is thought in your head?
Where is your thought?
(Helen illustrated by describing the outline of her face and head, and then said): Mind. My head is full of mind. Ask teacher a question.
(Mr. Bell then spelled upon his fingers to the teacher, allowing Helen to follow.)
Does Helen dream?
(The teacher replied, spelling upon her fingers), Yes.
(Mr. Bell again spelled upon his fingers, saying), What does she dream about?
(The teacher spelled). Ask Helen.
(To Helen): Do you ever dream?
What do you dream about?
About a very funny house. Last night, I dreamed about a very funny house. It was shaped like an orange and it was yellow. The beds were shaped like a pomegranate and the chairs were like balls with a flat seat. The tables were shaped like a triangle. (Helen illustrated by forming a triangle with her fingers.)
(Mr. Bell spelled), That was a funny dream. Were there any people in the house?
They did very queer things.
They wore breastpins on their shoes.
Did they talk to you?
No, dear; I only thought about it. I was not one of them. They wore some bangles on their heads and rings on their waists.
How did you know they had rings on their waists? Did you feel them?
No; I only dreamed I saw them in the window.
Do you mean that you saw them with your eyes?
Were you on the outside of the house?
I passed it and looked in.
Were the curtains drawn?
No; and it was very light.
What were the people doing?
They were throwing their handkerchiefs at each other and dancing. That was what they did. (Helen then illustrated by action.)
And were they talking?
No; they were only making funny sounds. (Helen illustrated.) Their eyes slanted down. (Helen illustrated.)
Could they see?
There were five eyes. One was in the middle of the head, one was on the nose, two were slanting (illustrated as before), and one was (pointing to the bridge of the nose).
Do such people live in Boston?
No; it was only a story.
Was it a dream, or a story?

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She left Boston on the seventeenth of June to go to her home in Alabama. As this letter, which I received from her in October, tells me of her use of speech, it may be of interest to you:


TUSCUMBIA, ALABAMA, Oct. 20, 1890.


MY DEAR MISS FULLER: Oh, no! I have not forgotten you, dear friend! I have thought of you every day, and I love you more than ever. I will tell you why I have not written before. After I came home I was sick for awhile, and the doctor said I must be very quiet and not get tired or I would be very ill. We all went away to a beautiful mountain where it was cool and pleasant, and I did nothing but play, and ride my dear donkey. You must know I had a lovely time climbing the steep paths and gathering the pretty wild flowers. Lioness, my great faithful mastiff, always went with us. When we were tired and sat down on a fallen tree to rest, she would roll in the leaves or lie quietly at our feet. Sometimes the rain came down in torrents, then we stayed in the house and amused ourselves. Mildred and our little cousin, Louise Adams, were very happy together. I used to swing them in the hammock, and have fun with them. They could understand all that I said to them, and sometimes I could tell what they said by feeling of their lips. Are you not delighted because I can speak so well? My dog comes bounding to me when I call her, and all of my friends know what I say if I speak distinctly. I have learned a great deal about my loving heavenly, and the dear Christ. I am very very happy. God wants us to be happy. I think He wanted you to teach me how to speak because He knew how much I wished to speak like other people. He did not want his child to be dumb, and when I go to him He will let his angels teach me to sing. I wonder if your beautiful new school is finished. You must give my dear love to all the children and the teachers. I hope they have not forgotten Helen. When I see you, I shall much, very much, to tell you. I am studying every day, and learning all I can about plants, and numbers, and the beautiful world our Father has given us. I am so glad that we shall live always, because there are so many wonderful things to learn about. Teacher sends love, and little sister sends a kiss. Lovingly, your little friend,



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