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An unintended vow of silence

October 13, 2008

by Caroline Wigmore

A friend of mine went out for her regular jog recently and came home with a broken jaw.

She was jogging in Minneapolis near her home, when she tripped, fell, and broke her jaw in three places.

Just a simple fall led to surgery and her jaw being wired shut, which makes eating and talking a rather big bother.

This got me to thinking about how much we rely on speech for communication and how difficult it is to have that form of communication taken away.

In college, I was required to take two years of a foreign language and chose American Sign Language (ASL). The University of Minnesota only hires deaf teachers to teach sign language. Speech was banned, which means that my classmates and I would sit through our four-hour class periods in complete silence.

There is a marked difference in atmosphere as you walk from a “hearing” part of the building into the deaf part, which is soundless, except for the occasional laugh, when a teacher signs a joke.

Hearing students find this ban of speech to be very difficult in the first semester of the class, but it gets easier with time.

The deaf world is an entire culture that has learned to communicate complex thoughts and emotions without the use of speech.

After I learned ASL, I found myself using it to communicate with other signing friends in cases where I couldn’t be heard, such as in a loud club, through the closed window of a car, or when I desired to communicate a private thought to an individual in a crowded room.

Small children can sign before they can speak, and it is becoming more and more popular to teach ASL to babies.

I used to be a nanny, and taught a few signs to the last toddler I took care of. She mastered the words “more,” “flower,” “milk,” and a few other words while she was still too young to speak clearly.

Silence is something that some are born into, while others choose.

Before my husband Chris and I met, he was seriously considering joining a monastery, where vows of silence were very common.

Needless to say, he didn’t join. However, before we started dating, he had spent some time staying at monestaries, where he observed the very different lifestyle of a monk.

“A vow of silence is an escape from the distraction of one’s own words, and it puts one in the position of ‘listener,’” Chris said.

Perhaps when my friend with the broken jaw heals, she will have some new insight for us into the art of listening.