A Man Without Words

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A Man Without Words is a book by Susan Schaller, first published in 1991, with a foreword by author and neurologist Oliver Sacks.[1] The book is the study of a 27-year-old deaf man whom Schaller teaches to sign for the first time, challenging the Critical Period Hypothesis that humans cannot learn language after a certain age.

The book features in 1,011 WorldCat libraries,[2] and has been translated into Dutch,[3] Japanese [4] and German.[5][6] The book was reviewed by The Los Angeles Times,[7] The New York Times [6] The Boston Globe,[8] and The Washington Post [9] A second edition, with new material, was published in August 2012 by University of California Press.[10]


Susan Schaller is a writer, public speaker and human rights advocate located in Berkeley, California.[11][better source needed] She was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, graduated from San Jose State University in San Jose, California, and earned her master's degree in public health education from the University of North Carolina.[12][page needed]


Susan Schaller began studying American Sign Language (ASL) at university in one of the first programs to present ASL classes to hearing students. Schaller recalls that she chose to sit in on this class randomly, and by doing so changed her life.[13] Five years later, in 1970, Schaller moved to Los Angeles with her husband and became an interpreter for the deaf at a local community college. She was then hired by the 'Reading Skills Class,' a class of deaf adults learning to read English, and it was here that she met Ildefonso. Within a few minutes of introductions, it became clear to her that Ildefonso did not understand her signs as a form of communication, but he diligently copied Schaller's movements hoping to derive some meaning. Ildefonso seemed to see Schaller's signs as commands more than representations of abstract concepts, and for several days appeared to make no progress. It was not until Schaller began signing the word "cat" to an imaginary student that Ildefonso suddenly understood her attempt to communicate meaning, at which point he began to cry.

Schaller worried that Ildefonso would not return to class the next day, but he did. After further sessions Ildefonso began carrying a list of English words in his pocket that, Schaller noted, he treated with the utmost care. After Ildefonso's breakthrough, Schaller found his learning progress very slow, and she worried that he would be unable to acquire language. She then approached linguist Ursula Bellugi at the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, where Bellugi specialized in the biological foundation of language, and language acquisition, with specific reference to ASL. Bellugi told Schaller that she had strong reservations whether Ildefonso could learn language at his present age (because according to the Critical Period Hypothesis language is only properly mastered in youth). Bellugi also noted that none of her students in tests of language acquisition had yet reached puberty, and that she could find no documented cases of an adult learning a first language. Schaller chose to move forward with teaching Ildefonso, as his dedication inspired her. Schaller also noted that Ildefonso was often in charge of determining the direction of the lesson. Schaller found that Ildefonso had no particular difficulty learning simple arithmetic using the numbers one through nine, and later ten and beyond, but the concepts of proper names and time proved more difficult. Schaller also noted that when he was learning colors, green triggered especially strong feelings for Ildefonso.

As time progressed, Ildefonso's progress was still slow, but he was able to communicate with Schaller. In later months stories began to emerge from Ildefonso's past, including a run-in with the border patrol, which explained Ildefonso's anxious response to the color green. In fact, Ildefonso's reaction was so strong that Schaller went to the local border patrol office to question them on their procedures in handling adults without language. At the end of four months, Ildefonso told Schaller that he would have to quit school in order to work.

Throughout her narrative of the four-month period of working with Ildefonso, Schaller touches on many subjects including race, religion, colonization, and Deaf Culture.[1]

Comparative cases[edit]

Schaller compares and contrasts Ildefonso's case with those of other individuals with impaired language or linguistic isolation. They include Peter the Wild Boy, Kaspar Hauser, Victor of Aveyron, and Ishi. Particular attention is given to "Genie," a feral child who was the victim of extraordinarily severe abuse, neglect and social isolation.


The book has been criticized for Schaller's comparisons between Ildefonso and children like Victor or Genie. Carol Padden writes that these comparisons distract readers from the basic differences between cases since Ildefonso was raised by a caretaker and in better conditions than Genie or Victor. Furthermore Ildefonso did have a mode of communication with which he could tell stories to his deaf brother before Schaller's arrival.[14]

Ildefonso was raised apart from his brother for most of his childhood.[citation needed]

Padden added:

"In the end, the comparison of Ildefonso with Genie and Victor would be more interesting if Schaller could extract real differences among them. The fact that all are 'language-less' may not seem as revealing as the fact that Genie and Victor lost not only the opportunity to acquire language, but the ability to participate in the social rhythm of life, the symbolic nature of organized human contact with one another. Without this essential symbolism, the point of using linguistic symbols is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp."[14]

The book was also reviewed by Jürgen Tesak, in the journal Language, who wrote:

"Considering what one finds out about Ildefonso's past, the story of a Kaspar-Hauser-creature rescued by Schaller after 'twenty-seven years of a mental isolation' 'in a black hell of meaninglessness and incomprehensible loneliness' is simply not true."

He criticized the book's lack of reference to a more scientific approach of studying the subject's case, writing that the book should be treated "with a maximum of caution".[15]

The first edition of the book was reviewed by author Lou Ann Walker in The New York Times shortly after publication. She complained "It is frustrating not to learn more about Ildefonso and his life in this slim volume," but acknowledged that "[v]irtually nothing has been written about adults without language, but Ms. Schaller makes it clear that their numbers are greater than we think." [16]


A short documentary film about Ildefonso and Schaller, with the same title as the book, was produced in 2013 by filmmaker Zack Godshall, whose previous work includes the 2011 Sundance film Lord Byron. This film was shown at the Southern Screen film festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. [17]


  1. ^ a b A man without words by Susan Schaller. New York : Summit Books, 1991 ISBN 978-0-671-70310-3 WorldCat
  2. ^ WorldCat Identities
  3. ^ De man zonder woorden by Susan Schaller, transl. Aafje Bruinsma. Utrecht: Kosmos, 1993 ISBN 978-90-215-2009-4 [1]
  4. ^ 言葉のない世界に生きた男 / Kotoba no nai sekai ni ikita otoko. by スーザン・シャラー著 ; 中村妙子訳. 中村妙子. ( Susan Schaller; transl. Taeko Nakamura) 晶文社, Tōkyō : Shōbunsha, 1993. ISBN 978-4-7949-6124-2 [2]
  5. ^ Ein Leben ohne Worte : ein Taubstummer lernt Sprache verstehen by Susan Schaller. München : Knaur, 1992 ISBN 978-3-426-75002-5 [3]
  6. ^ a b Lou Ann Walker; "All Language Was Foreign" New York Times, February 03, 1991 [4]
  7. ^ Thomas Mallon, "And This Shall Be a Sign: A MAN WITHOUT WORDS," Los Angeles Times, Jan 27, 1991 [5]
  8. ^ David Mehegan, "Journey into a life without language" Boston Globe, Feb 4, 1991 [6]
  9. ^ " Of Triumphs Unspoken" Washington Post, Mar 19, 1991
  10. ^ http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520274914 A Man Without Words at UC Press
  11. ^ Schaller, Susan. "Susan Schaller, et al.". susanschaller.com. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  12. ^ A man without words by Susan Schaller. New York : Summit Books, 1991
  13. ^ http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/words-that-change-the-world/
  14. ^ a b American Journal of Psychology Vol. 105, No. 4, 1992 (pg.648-653)
  15. ^ Language Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 664-665
  16. ^ "All Language Was Foreign" by Lou Ann Walker from The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1991. Accessible online at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/03/books/all-language-was-foreign.html
  17. ^ http://www.katc.com/news/southern-screen-presents-zack-godshalls-a-man-without-words/

See also[edit]