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A Man Without Words
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A Man Without Words

3.63 of 5 stars 3.63  ·  rating details  ·  207 ratings  ·  38 reviews

"At the level of sheer pleasure in reading, A Man without Words is as gripping as a novel, eliciting great sympathy for both protagonist and author. . . . The question that drives it—what is it like to be without language?—should be of interest to any reflective person, and it is one of the great scientific questions of all time."—Steven Pinker, author of The Language Inst

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Paperback, 210 pages
Published August 29th 1995 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 1991)
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver SacksOutliers by Malcolm GladwellMusicophilia by Oliver SacksThe Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Radiolab Suggested Readings
111th out of 178 books — 179 voters
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootMusicophilia by Oliver SacksA Primate's Memoir by Robert M. SapolskyBrain Bugs by Dean BuonomanoThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Radiolab Bookshelf
82nd out of 95 books — 13 voters


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Community Reviews

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Valarie
It was difficult to review this book, because on the one hand, Schaller has done a great thing by publicizing the existence of people who have not had the opportunity to learn any standardized language. I'm sure this book changed the minds of some linguists and ASL interpreters, and the subject of the biography was very lucky to have come across someone with the patience to teach him language. However interesting the subject may have been, on the other hand is Schaller's disgusting exoticization ...more
schmoozie
Condescending and ill-informed. I really didn't like this book. The author even states that when this "languageless" man encounters a Deaf person, they exchange more information than she had been able to in weeks with him. Then the end of the book has a description of a group of "languageless" people who apparently are communicating without language! They are all deaf and come from the same country...gosh could it be they have a different signed language or are using a pidgin created from the va ...more
Kate
I was excited to dive into this book given the subject matter and the questions that it raised. It was a good read. I flew through the early pages. But, as I got further into the text and the story and learned more about this man I became somewhat appalled at what I was reading. In fact, I wrote a rather lengthy and opinionated paper on this book arguing that this woman obliterated a profound and unique language that this man had. She painted an entire picture of him from the very beginning as b ...more
Nick
Sep 30, 2014 Nick rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Parents of deaf children
Recommended to Nick by: Radiolab
A certain episode of Radiolab featured this story as a way of considering the power and necessity of language for human flourishing. (You can listen at this link). Schaller tells the story of a young man she meets almost by accident at a class for deaf students at a university in California in the 1970s. After interacting with him briefly, she discovers that his inability to communicate is not ignorance about the particular signs of American Sign Language, but is actually a consequence of the fa ...more
Whitney
The first half was three stars, the second half...six. (yes, six.) <3
Rebecca Gernon
A moving story about the author and Ildefonso. a deaf man who never was introduced to language until he was 28. Sadly, Ildefonso is one of many deaf people who do not have the opportunity to receive and education, this is perhaps even more prevalent in 3rd world countries.
Some of the book is a little technical in nature which can bog you down in the middle part of the book, but understanding how not having language keeps a person in solitude and painful to read.
The author explains that any deaf
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Shiv
A Man Without Words. A man without language. Not just the lack of language, but the lack of a concept of language. No common means of communication, no idea that everything around us in the world, and a whole invisible world of non-tangibles (emotions, actions, tenses) has been given a name. Think for a moment what that would be like, to reach adulthood and be in an incomprehensible and lonely world. A world governed by seemingly arbitrary rules.

While working as a sign language translator Susan
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Linda
I read this because Temple Grandin in "Animals in Translation" mentioned it several times, and it intrigued me. I don't know a whole lot about ASL and the Deaf community, but this story about an ASL teacher (the author) who helps a languageless - deaf man discover language was really enjoyable. I just can't imagine how a person can grow up to 28 years without ever knowing language or even knowing things have names, etc. It challenges the notion that one cannot have cognition without language. It ...more
scc101
WHAT I LIKED:
The concept behind the story is fascinating. The author finds a 27-year-old man who hadn't ever learned a formal language. She discussed how she taught him language and the moment Ildefonso put everything together.

I had never considered that a child who was born deaf may never learn language unless there are community resources available to teach a sign language. (There is more than one sign language, btw. ASL is just one kind.) If a child is born deaf to hearing parents who don't k
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Bria
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Susan Emmet
Found this book on a pile of discards one night on break from adult ed. class.
Amazing book. The true story of Ildefonso, from Mexico, who grew up "languageless" and deaf until he was 27. Susan Schaller worked with him for a few months, then moved away, and returned to find him again in CA seven years later. A skilled ASL signer/interpreter, she has dedicated much of her working life to advocacy and research with deaf adults, even forming a non-profit advocacy group with colleagues. Ildefonso's j
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Chie Alemán
Sorry this isn't a better review, but I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts. What I really liked about this book was being able to see into the world of a Deaf man without a formal language, but I didn't care for the author or her style. There seemed to be a veiled audism to the book that was a little off-putting. However, it is interesting to see how as long as there's is (healthy) human interaction of some kind, there will be a kind of language development, even if it isn't quite the same k ...more
Omgitssarah
I really enjoyed this book. However, she had a type of vocabulary that was very biased and insensitive. I wished she didn't view herself as some God or heavenly sent angel that turned Ildefonso "ignorance" into something that allowed him to embrace humanity and socialization. I believe she gives herself too much credit and little to the real main character.
Although, I admire her for her patience and continuance to research "language-less" members of society.
Serena
I liked the writing style and the way she told the story. I'm not sure how accurate this book is on information about linguistics and the development of language in the context that the author refers to, as there are many parts of the book that indicate some form of language development in the subject's past. However, it was an interesting story.
Matthew Green
I heard the story of Susan Schaller and Ildefonso on the Radiolab podcast. If I had been driving I would have had to pull over. The story of ildefonso, the moment he realized he lived in a world of language, and the struggles he faced ahead as he moved into a world of meanings in one of the most moving human stories I have ever heard.

I had to read Schaller's book to get the full story. It was worth it, but I dare say the quality of the book is entirely in the 'this actually happened, this is a r
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Pamela
Aug 17, 2009 Pamela rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: deaf
Wow! I was really enthralled by this account of a Deaf interpreter who meets a Deaf man with no language at all. Interestingly, when she tried to research how to teach languageless adults, she was unable to find material. The theory prevailed that if a person does not learn language by adulthood, they COULDN'T learn language. Thankfully, she didn't stumble on this theory until later, and so proceeded the slow, painstaking process of getting Ildefonso to learn that all things have names. Then lat ...more
Virginia
A fascinating story of an adult man, born profoundly deaf, who had no language and communicated almost solely through mime/gestures. The concept of words as representing other things was something he'd never understood. The author tells the story of this prelingual man's breakthrough after helping him achieve it. My only complaint is that I wanted to know so much more about Ildefonso! Maybe it's impossible for me to fully understand since I've had language for so long (there's some evidence that ...more
Rebecca
Despite the 3-star rating, this is a really interesting book and definitely worth a read.

I just finished writing a 3-page report on this so I'm not in the mood to do a review right now, but the drop in rating is mostly because of the author's disorganized structure and heavy-handed ("trying too hard to be profound") writing style.

I'll try to write a full review later.

But anyone who is at all interested in deafness, in language/linguistics, or human culture should definitely read this book.
Chuck
I was looking to understand more about this man and his evolution of thought and language, but instead got a personal narrative of the teacher's own grandeur. Very intriguing story, but hard to get through since the author seems to think that Ildefonso was incapable of anything without her intervention. She compares him and other "languageless" people to Neanderthals and in general exhibits a condescending attitude toward a clearly capable and interesting, though different, man.
Ellen
A fascinating story, but stiffly and rather blandly told.
Yeonoh
It shows human contacts/connections are essential to learn language through the real story of born deaf people who did not have chances to learn language until they became adults. You can observe the invention of language and the beginning of the collective human mind.
Alice
This book was incredible. I give it five stars because so little literature on this subject exists and I love that this woman documented her experiences from a human perspective. I originally heard about this story from a RadioLab podcast and then read this book. The idea of experiencing the acquisition of language is so fascinating to me.
Cindy
This book brings up language in its most basic form and I found it REALLY interesting. I actually got to meet and talk with the author (she lives in the Bay Area) and she's an amazing person - she loves the work that she does with the deaf and she's obviously making a huge difference in the lives of those who need it most.
Ren
It could have been paced better. She spent an awful lot of time repeating herself and musing on the same concepts over and over again. We didn't actually get to see much of the protagonist because she spent so much time theorizing. Very interesting read, though.
Sylvester
It's been years since I read this, but it has stayed with me. An absolutely enthralling story that sparked my continuing interest in literacy. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how the brain works or in literacy, or enjoys Oliver Sacks' writing.
Isla Ducky
This book is an excellent source of ideas on the topic of languageless people, brought down by the author's well meaning but condescending tone and outdated racism. fascinating story well worth its weaknesses.
Xarah
Dec 15, 2009 Xarah rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Xarah by: Dr. Jim Wilce
Shelves: non-fiction, own
Very interesting book on being a languageless deaf person. Required text for Anthropology 103: Culture and Communication at Northern Arizona University.
Kelly
This book really makes you appreciate the ability to communicate. If you are studying ASL or human behaviors, this is an excellent true story.
Ashlee
Fascinating read and eye-opener about the reality of the deaf community and growing up without an L1; for linguists a must-read.
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