Words Make Us Human

June 11, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

Listen to a young child chatter and try to imagine growing up without language. The sheer joy of falling in love with language -- not just sounds, but words and sentences -- makes us feel part of the human community.

Then imagine what it must be like to be deaf and as eager as any child to communicate, but without parents willing to help you learn how. Earlier this month, a judge in Wilmington, N.C., awarded custody of Sonya Kinney, a 15-year-old deaf girl, to her school interpreter in a case contested by her father.

Good move, judge.

Norman Kinney's history of alcohol abuse and child neglect no doubt made the decision easier than it might have been. But surely it also sends a message the world needs to hear.

Parental responsibility covers more than the basic necessities of survival. It also includes the nurture that enables a child to form relationships, to participate in society. Without language -- without the ability to communicate -- that's hard to do.

In his defense, Mr. Kinney told the court that although he never learned sign language, ''I could stomp my foot and point to something.'' As his daughter grew older he would write her notes and letters. For bigger problems, he said, ''I would go to the school and have the interpreter tell me what was bothering her.''

Sonya's mother, long divorced from her father, also refused to learn sign language. The teen-ager left her mother's household last winter, after trying in vain to tell her mother that her stepfather had abused her two years ago. But soon after moving in with her father, she began staying with Joanie Hughes, the interpreter hired for her by the school system.

And who can blame her? ''If I have to live with my dad, I'm alone all the time,'' the girl told reporters through Ms. Hughes.

Later, after learning of the judge's decision, she told Ms. Hughes, ''I'm saved. You saved my life.''

Teen-agers can be melodramatic, but Sonya Kinney's sentiments ring true.

Without language, we are alone. Human beings are social creatures -- else why would solitary confinement be such a cruel punishment?

Sonya Kinney's victory is a milestone for the rights of deaf people. But it holds a larger lesson as well.

Her parents failed to provide the nurture and affection she needed and begged for. But they also faced an obstacle. How many parents with no such problems still fail to communicate with their children?

How many children grow up impoverished not by lack of financial stability, but by a paucity of language, by adults who never address them with full sentences or ask how their day went and then take time to hear and respond to a child's rambling answer?

It happens, and not just in the kind of household where Baltimore city social workers once found 6-year-old twin girls who had never been taught the difference between "up" and "down."

Stomping and pointing are not enough. Neither is the habit of parking kids in front of a television set rather than talking to them.

We are born with a need for language. Signed or spoken, it makes us who we are.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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