How do deaf people who have never heard speech think? Nikola Śliwa explains in Polish Sign Language.
Hearing individuals “think in a voice,” meaning their thoughts take the form of spoken words. One could say that the mind of a hearing person has its “inner voice.” This unspoken voice also appears when reading or writing. Furthermore, when reading messages from loved ones, such as a text from mom, hearing individuals can mentally interpret the message in the voice of their mom. When a hearing person sees a written word, they automatically connect it with its sound representation. Experts refer to this type of reading as subvocalization. But what about individuals who are deaf from birth or became deaf before acquiring language? This is a question that often intrigues hearing individuals – how do deaf people think?
For hearing individuals, it is challenging to imagine thinking differently than with an “inner voice.” Most deaf individuals, especially those deaf from birth, do not subvocalize when reading. They do not associate sounds with words as hearing individuals do. Instead, they form associations between words and visual images or signs from sign language. In other words, their brains employ the same mechanism, but instead of connecting a word with an auditory image, they link it to a visualization. What are the consequences of this difference for reading skills?
Subvocalization is utilized in teaching phonetic reading in any language. In schools, children are taught to read by showing them how to write a letter and how to pronounce it, i.e., what sound it makes. Hearing children first learn what is called “loud reading” or reading aloud, and only later do they learn “silent reading,” also known as reading in their minds. Unfortunately, this method has many limitations.
The main problem is that reading in this way is very slow. As the need to read a larger amount of material arises, it can become an obstacle. The situation is the opposite for many deaf individuals — the beginning of learning to read may be challenging, but due to the absence of subvocalization, they can read faster later on. Interestingly, knowledge about how deaf individuals read has become very helpful for the development of effective reading methods for… hearing children.
Importantly, modern research shows that learning phonetic language is much easier and faster if a deaf child knows sign language. Currently, it is recognized that the most effective method for teaching phonetic language to deaf children is creating associations between written words and images. Illustrating the meaning of words and associating them with signs is crucial. This can take the form of flashcards, picture books, or movement games using words written on cards. This method of reading is similar to the most effective method of teaching reading to hearing children, known as whole language reading. In this method, we do not break words into syllables or phonemes; instead, we present the word as a whole.
Similarly, in the education of deaf children, we connect the word as a whole with an image, with the difference that hearing children are shown the pronunciation of the word, while deaf children are shown the sign from sign language. As learning progresses, just as hearing individuals internalize a voice while reading, deaf individuals internalize signing. This means they do not have to sign literally — perform signs with their hands; they can “sign in their minds.”
In summary, research shows that at the initial stage, it is more challenging for deaf individuals to learn to read than for hearing individuals. Deciphering the meaning of words is more difficult because sign language differs from phonetic language. Hearing individuals naturally associate word representation with sound. Learning to read comes faster and easier because there is a 100% match between what they say and what they read. However, in the longer term, subvocalization slows down their reading pace. In contrast, deaf individuals may have a more challenging start, but in the long run, they become faster readers because internalizing words does not limit them.
Therefore, many hearing individuals take advantage of speed reading courses, during which they, in a way, unlearn subvocalization and train the skill of expanding their field of view. Deaf individuals do not face this problem — they move their eyes across the text differently. Hearing individuals focus on a short segment — visual attention is limited, and they can remember only one to three words at a time. This slows down reading. Deaf individuals can look more broadly, encompassing larger text fragments, allowing them to receive information more quickly and, consequently, read faster.
Of course, a completely different topic is vocabulary knowledge and the overall level of phonetic language proficiency, including its grammar. In this video, we discuss the technique and method of reading. Understanding the text due to the fact that phonetic language is a foreign language for many deaf individuals is a completely different issue. Finally, it is essential to emphasize whether a person is deaf from birth or became deaf before acquiring language, or lost their hearing as someone already proficient in speech. The home and educational environment are also crucial — the language used at home, the nature of education, the attitude of family members toward sign language, and, of course, the level of hearing loss and the ability to hear speech.