This Miracle Occurs Only With Humans

Here is the climax of the movie The Miracle Worker, with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke:

The Miracle Worker tells the true story of Anne Sullivan (played by Bancroft) and Helen Keller (played by Duke), as recounted in Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life. In this scene, Helen suddenly grasps the idea that the sequences of hand gestures that Sullivan has been making stand for the names of things! Once Helen grasped this concept, she started racing around, demanding to know what other things were called. No ape has ever done that.

Helen Keller was born in 1880 and had been rendered blind and deaf by an illness (possibly meningitis or scarlet fever) when she was 19 months old. Thus, she lost her hearing and her sight before she learned how to speak more than a couple of words, including water, which she pronounced “wah-wah.” We don’t know whether Keller uttered the word “wah-wah” at the water pump that day. That vocalization was added to the script for the benefit of hearing audiences.

When Helen was 6 years old, her mother read in Charles Dickens’ American Notes about the successful education of a deaf-blind woman named Laura Bridgman at Perkins Institute for the Blind. The Kellers hired a visually impaired graduate of the Perkins Institute, Anne Sullivan, as a tutor for Helen. The Miracle Worker shows how Anne Sullivan first had to teach Helen basic manners and then went through a laborious process of using the manual alphabet (finger spelling) to teach Helen the names of objects in her world. They had to use finger spelling instead of American Sign Language because Helen was blind as well as deaf.

At first, Sullivan had mixed success in getting Helen to make the appropriate symbols in the appropriate context. Then, one day, Helen simply “got it.” She realized that w-a-t-e-r spelled out in her hand stood for the concept of water. She then frantically went from one thing to another, demanding to know the names of everything in her world. One thing that was inaccurate about the movie was Helen’s age. Helen Keller was 7 years old when the miracle occurred. Patty Duke was in her mid-teens when the movie was filmed.

The movie shows a miracle that occurs in the life of nearly every human being: the acquisition of language. It was fortunate that Anne Sullivan came into Helen’s life when Helen was only 7 years old. Human beings who do not acquire at least one language before they go through puberty might never be able to grasp the grammatical structure of any language. The best evidence of this phenomenon comes from studies of sign language among deaf children.

Anne Sullivan was called a miracle worker because she taught Helen Keller to use language–and even to read lips and speak–even though Helen was blind and deaf. Here is some footage of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller from a 1930 newsreel:

Teaching Helen to use language revealed a brilliant mind. Helen Keller went on to graduate from Radcliffe College. She’d wanted to go to Harvard, but Harvard didn’t admit women back then. She also became an important political activist, not just in causes related to blindness and deafness but also in the cause of workers’ rights, peace, and social issues.

Many people are aware that various researchers have tried to teach American Sign Language to apes. They may even have seen CGI ape characters using American Sign Language in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Few people realize, however, that no ape has ever really used American Sign Language as a language. Like Helen Keller before the water pump scene, apes sometimes mimic signs and can sometimes be trained to produce the appropriate sign in a particular context. Yet no ape has ever started demanding to know what things are called, and no ape has ever held anything remotely like a real human conversation.

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