Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Networking!

Gallaudet had been studying to be a minister and back in those days when you finished school, you would begin a process of write away to job postings that had been advertised, so he went home to live with his family for a while.  He got caught up on the lives of his younger siblings and their friends and he noticed that all of the neighbor kids were all playing together with the exception of Alice, the daughter of one of his neighbors, who he then learned was deaf.  As he came to understand through conversations with her parents, although there was no language for the Deaf in the United States, sign languages did exist in Europe and he felt called to action.  He began fundraising and ultimately was able to be sent over to a convention for Deaf educators that was being held later that year in London.  He figured that British sign language would be the natural choice, but as he learned when he met the British deaf educators, they were not willing to train him in the language unless he was willing to stay on and teach within their schools for a number of years. His passion was to bring a language to the United States, so he turned down their offer to stay and work with them.

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It seemed like his trip had been in vain until he met Laurent Clerc, an educator from France, who taught him LSF (Langue de Signes Franscaise) and then traveled back with him to America to set up the first school for the deaf here in Hartford Connecituit, near where Gallaudet and his family lived. Alice was one of their first students, and in the process of teaching them LSF, and in their learning English and learning from one another the home signs that each of them had brought with them, a new language was born: ASL.

He recognized a problem that he was willing to devote himself to solving

And his response to the problem of Alice’s inability to communicate was absolutely informed by his training as a minister and the way that it had prepared him to engage with the world.

He applied his skills to this problem

From back in the days of Michelangelo, it has always been about finding the money to support you in doing what you are called to do.  His success was absolutely the result of skills in fundraising, which no doubt were enhanced by his skills in teaching (he taught these people that he raised money from about the importance of a language for the deaf).

He networked

With the conference in the UK, he found an association of individuals, a community that would support him, and he did not take the first offer of support either.  He stayed true to his guiding interest and ultimately found the right contact for him at that time: Laurent Clerc.  Also, because this story takes place nearly 200 years ago, it serves as a reminder that despite all the claims that the world of work is changing, things were ever thus.  Our paths are absolutely changed by the people that we meet along the way.

As a linguist of course, this story is exciting because it involves the creation of a new language, but I also love it as a exemplification of the roundabout ways that we come to find professional expression of our gifts.  They say that luck with where opportunity meets preparation, and Gallaudet was certainly prepared to be lucky in the moment that he learned about the need for an American sign language.

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