After re-watching The Miracle Worker, I got inspired to read Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. The book describes Helen Keller’s life from birth to the age of 21 in three parts: Keller’s own autobiographical account, a collection of Helen’s letters, and reports and letters from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.
I find Helen, who was born in 1880 and died in 1968, to be one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. Far beyond simply learning to read and write, she became a public intellectual, graduating from Radcliffe college and writing and speaking magnificently about the rights of the disabled and indeed of all people on the margins of life.
The Story of My Life provides a remarkable portrait and is one of the only existent autobiographical accounts of first language development. Most people learn their first language as an infant, and thus cannot remember the process to report on it. Helen provides a fascinating glimpse at how she learned English, and the value of the account is heightened by the inclusion of her letter’s and the reports of her teacher.
Keller was taught by what Sullivan called the natural method of instruction. Sullivan, who herself had been partially blind, simply signed to Helen abundantly throughout the day (using fingerspelling into Helen’s hand") about things that Helen was interested in. As Sullivan described her approach, "Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences….I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it; but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of thought; thus the learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knolwedge. In order to use language intelligently, one must have something to talka bout, and having something to talk about is the result of having had experiences…I always tried to find out what interested her most, and made that the starting-point for the new lesson, whether it had any bearing on the lesson I had planned to teach or not" (The Story of My Life, p. 317-318).
Sullivan’s signing was soon supplemented by reading (using braille or raised print). Keller read things that at first were far difficult to her, but simply tried to pick out words she knew. She then became adept at guessing words words from context.
Keller was an incredible person who was gifted by a brilliant mind, an intense curiosity for and love of life, and the priviledge of living in a wealthy family that could provide her an around-the-clock private tutor. The fact that Keller could see and hear until she was 19 months old also eased her transition to language later on (and, indeed, even before Sullivan came into her life, Keller had already developed 50-60 rudimentary signs that she used to communicate with people around her). But I believe that the method that Sullivan used was also critical to Keller’s success, and for an excellent account of that method in practice I recommend The Story of My Life.