The Evolution of a Deaf Character

As I mentioned last week, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting at the beginning of January. One of the talks I was particularly looking forward to was the plenary address by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the field of gesture studies. Her speech was entitled “From homesign to sign language: Creating language in the manual modality.” The reason I was so interested in this talk is because Susan Goldin-Meadow actually had an indirect influence on Sparkers. In the book, Marah’s younger brother Caleb is deaf. His deafness has been one of the few points of intersection of my writing and my study of linguistics, and it’s certainly the one that has preoccupied me the most.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked for a University of Minnesota professor who was studying the gestures preschoolers make as they talk in the context of make-believe play. My job was to watch videos of preschoolers over and over and transcribe and categorize their gestures. I also began a literature review, which is how I first came across Goldin-Meadow’s work.

Goldin-Meadow has two main research interests: co-speech gesture and homesign. It was the former that was relevant to my summer research, but the latter also piqued my interest. Homesign is “the gestural communication system developed by a deaf child who lacks input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community” (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t remember having an “aha!” moment, but that must have been the first time I had the vocabulary to describe how Caleb talked to his mother and sister. He was using homesign, but I had never known to call it that, nor had I thought much about its linguistic or non-linguistic properties.

In her speech in January, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that homesign is more language-like than gesture (that is, what hearing people use when they talk) but is not full-fledged sign language. Though of course I learned a lot of new things from her talk, the core distinctions between gesture, homesign, and sign language were the ones I remembered from before, the ones which had been shaping how I thought about Caleb and his ways of communicating for years.

Some background information: Caleb is the only deaf member of his family, and he has never interacted with other deaf people. He and his family communicate using a system of signs. In Sparkers, he’s ten years old. Although he doesn’t go to school, he’s very precocious and enjoys reading his fourteen-year-old sister’s school books.

Originally, Caleb was born deaf. In the earliest drafts, I occasionally referred to the way he and Marah communicated as “sign language.” It’s hard to trace the precise evolution of how I conceived of and portrayed Caleb’s deafness, but it seems it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that I changed my mind about Caleb being deaf from birth. In a document in which I was planning revisions, I noted that Caleb’s reading level was implausible for a child who’d been born deaf. I decided he’d lost his hearing as a toddler as a result of meningitis. In this revision document, I also specifically called Caleb’s signs “homesign.”

Early last year, while visiting grad schools, I met several linguistics students and professors who were doing research on sign languages and language acquisition and reading ability in deaf children. This was during a time when I felt like linguistics and writing were pulling me in different directions, so I actually appreciated that these visits were drawing the two together by making me think hard about Caleb. But they also made me wonder just how well or badly I had written this deaf character, who was now an inextricable part of a novel that was about to be sold.

Attending Susan Goldin-Meadow’s plenary address three weeks ago brought all these old wonderings back, as well as sparking some new ones. I’m not finished thinking about Caleb, so I don’t really have an ending to this post, except to say that I’m grateful for the occasional convergence of my linguistics and writing lives.


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