Reflections on the Congress of Milan and Its Consequences for French Sign Language at the End of the 19th Century

Deafness in the 19th Century
By Florence Encrevé

In 1880 an international congress on deaf children’s education was held in Milan. Among its resolutions was the declaration that the “oral method” was preferable to the “signing method”. This congress was the end result of a conflict between the two methods which had developed over the course of the nineteenth century. Two official French delegations were present : the representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and the representatives of the Ministry of Public Education. Although both were supporters of the oral method, members of these delegations clashed on other issues, and the final resolutions voted by the congress catered primarily to the wishes of the Ministry of the Interior. After this congress, the French government decided to implement these resolutions everywhere on French territory: henceforth sign language was no longer used in schools for deaf children; instead mainly speech and lip-reading were taught. The consequences of that decision can still be felt today: since sign language is no longer used in the schools, deaf children born to hearing families who do not practice sign language have no opportunities to learn it. Hence the number of sign-language users stagnated, and until the 1970s, its practice remained limited to the spheres of family and non-profit organisations. Since that period, sign language has started to develop once again in France.


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