The Listener: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the Father of American Sign Language

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet went to great lengths to help a young Deaf girl named Alice communicate with the world.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet made teaching sign language his mission in life.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet made teaching sign language his mission in life. / NickAllen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s story begins with a little girl.

In the early 1800s, Gallaudet arrived back home in Hartford, Connecticut, to visit his family after completing his education in two seeming disparate fields—law and divinity. While mulling over his decision to become a minister, Gallaudet took notice of Alice Cogswell, a 9-year-old neighborhood girl who he soon realized was deaf.

For Gallaudet, a man unsure of which direction to take in life, meeting Alice would prove fateful. He became determined to open up her world, and in doing so transformed the Deaf community—but the reputation of the institution he helped build would prove both complicated and tragic.

Struggling to Be Understood

In the 1800s, the practice of medicine was largely that—practice. To have a physical affliction meant a strong possibility one would not only be dismissed but ostracized.

A person using sign language is pictured
Sign language not widely regarded in the 19th century. / Srinivasan J/iStock via Getty Images

At the time Gallaudet met Alice Cogswell, some harbored the belief that deaf people were mentally impaired or otherwise beyond reach. To structure formal education for those who had lost hearing through birth or illness was rare, especially in the United States.

Gallaudet, who was born in Philadelphia in 1787, didn’t see things that way. The Yale graduate had considered law before realizing his Protestant roots were calling him to the ministry. He became a traveling minister and taught children history in areas lacking in schools or curriculums, making him uniquely positioned to understand that educators needed a way to reach all students, not just ones who could listen.

Gallaudet also had the good fortune to become acquainted with Alice’s father, Mason Cogswell. An educated surgeon in good social standing, Cogswell wasn’t disposed to believe in superstitions about his daughter’s condition. He simply wanted to see her live a fulfilling life.

With Mason’s assistance, Gallaudet traveled to Europe to investigate something he had only read about: a burgeoning educational system for the Deaf.

Gallaudet’s journey took him to England and Scotland, where the lauded Braidwood schools were located. Under the direction of the Braidwoods, the “deaf and dumb” were taught a mixture of oral communication and hand gestures. But all students were expected to learn lip reading as part of the lesson plan, a one-size-fits-all approach that Gallaudet found frustrating.

The encounter was further discouraging when Gallaudet realized Braidwood’s philosophy didn’t involve sharing knowledge. Braidwood saw Gallaudet as a possible competitor for students and demanded he pay him a percentage of the fees he collected from any future pupils.

Disappointed, Gallaudet next went to France at the invitation of Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard of what’s now the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. Sicard had been lecturing in England and told Gallaudet about the school, which taught a form of sign language. Here Gallaudet found a more receptive welcome; Sicard was happy to share his techniques.

Sicard was fluent in sign language but was in no way its innovator or inventor. Pocket communities that had adopted hand signs to communicate had existed for hundreds of years, including the Benedictine monks (who needed to communicate even during periods of voluntary silence) and, most notably, Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. There, due to genetic reasons, 1 in 25 residents had some form of hearing loss, far higher than the then-national average of 1 in 5700. This led residents to evolve and pass along what became known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

But Sicard’s school was one of the few places where hand gestures indicating words and concepts were formally taught. And even though Sicard was accommodating, Gallaudet faced a new problem: Learning sign language was an intensive process. Even with Cogswell’s backing, he was financially unable to remain in France long enough to learn everything he needed.

If Gallaudet couldn’t remain in France, then perhaps he could take part of France back home with him.

The French Connection

In 1816, Laurent Clerc was Sicard’s chief assistant and a valuable asset to Sicard’s sign language program. Clerc was himself deaf, possibly from birth, though a childhood accident—an infected burn—may have also been to blame. He was taught at the Institut but spurned attempts to force him to speak. Clerc was most comfortable using gestures.

A boy is pictured learning sign language
Sign language hasn't always been viewed positively in the Deaf community. / Wavebreakmedia/iStock via Getty Images

Both Clerc and fellow teacher Jean Massieu were experienced in manual sign language, which dispensed with incorporating oral language and relied solely on hand cues that were assigned words. It was Gallaudet’s idea that Clerc could return with him to America as a kind of emissary, helping this form of physical communication gain ground outside of France.

It was a canny idea, and one Sicard endorsed—to Gallaudet’s face, anyway. Privately, he didn’t want to lose his best teacher, and tried to sabotage the arrangement by convincing Clerc’s mother that the school would suffer in his absence. This led to some pressure being applied on Clerc to remain home.

It was a difficult decision. For Clerc, moving to America meant being away from his family. But he felt Gallaudet’s intentions were noble. Sicard agreed to “loan” Clerc to Gallaudet for a period of three years, and Gallaudet and Clerc set sail to Connecticut. While traveling, Gallaudet taught the Frenchman English; Clerc taught him Sicard’s version of sign language. The lessons lasted the length of the trip—52 days.

When the two arrived in Connecticut, Clerc was introduced to Alice Cogswell. As with Gallaudet, Alice presented as the embodiment of the struggle to teach a disadvantaged population. He began tutoring her in sign language, which uses gestures for abstract ideas. Clerc’s name, for example, was indicated by a brush along the cheek—the spot where he had suffered the burn (and now scar) as a child.

Gallaudet and Clerc had the support of the Cogswells, but that wouldn’t be quite enough. They traveled the East Coast, imploring legislators and parents of the need for a better educational system.

With both private and public funds, they opened the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later known as the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford in 1817. (It should be said that Gallaudet disliked the name from the start.) Gallaudet was principal, Clerc was the head teacher, and Alice was one of the first students in the school, the first permanent learning facility for the Deaf in the country.

Good Signs

The American School for the Deaf’s first class welcomed students from the ages of 10 to 51. Prior education or income level was of no concern; if a seat was available, the school would fill it.

Statues of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell are pictured
Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell in bronze. / AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Naturally, the sign language Clerc taught was heavily influenced by the French language, though students would help it evolve into what would become American Sign Language (ASL). Many had developed their own style of signing; some even came from Martha’s Vineyard. Clerc observed students were just as readily helping one another as he was educating them.

Alice graduated from the American School for the Deaf in 1824 and subsequently became a fierce advocate for Deaf rights, traveling the country to argue for proper education and to dispel any residual mythology. Tragically, she and her father died in 1830.

Gallaudet found a life-changing element to his work, and not just in classrooms. A graduate of the school, Sophia Fowler, became his wife in 1821. He and Clerc ran the school through 1831, when Gallaudet grew frustrated with his low pay doled out by the school board. He decided to resume his work in the ministry, a life he continued until his death in 1851.

The Gallaudet name continued on. His son Edward helped found what’s now Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University in 1864. A statue of Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell stands on the grounds. Throughout Gallaudet’s and Clerc’s tenures, Deaf schools were seeded, either by graduating students who opened them or educators who learned from their example.

Gallaudet’s Legacy

ASL still had obstacles to overcome. As time passed, competing theories about the best way to teach communications skills to deaf people were routinely batted around. Inventor and influential intellectual Alexander Graham Bell favored the “oralist,” or speaking/lip-reading, approach. (Bell’s mother and wife were both deaf.) Bell may have felt he was doing the right thing, but his oralism stifled ASL for a time.

In the 1960s, a National Science Foundation grant allowed English professor William Stokoe to author A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles (1965), which helped it become accepted. ASL, Stokoe argued, had its own grammar and syntax. (He would know: Stokoe was a teacher at Gallaudet University.) ASL became the dominant teaching language in the Deaf community in the United States.

Sadly, Gallaudet’s kindness was not perpetuated by later faculty members. In 2020, the American School for the Deaf, now located in West Hartford, announced that an internal investigation revealed dozens of sexual and physical abuse cases involving students and perpetuated by former staff that took place between the 1950s and the 1980s. The report, which was prepared by the school, was referred to authorities. The school offered transparency in their findings and referenced security measures to keep current enrollees safe.

It’s certainly not the kind of postscript either Gallaudet or victims deserved. His is but one story of someone whose selflessness and sincerity helped the hearing-impaired move past a cynical society and create opportunities. His kind gesture—to help a little girl—led to billions of gestures that have helped millions of people.