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A Man Without Words

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  429 ratings  ·  67 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 itwhat 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

Paperback, 210 pages
Published August 29th 1995 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 1991)
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Average rating 3.77  · 
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 ·  429 ratings  ·  67 reviews

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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
Jun 13, 2008 rated it did not like it
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 ...more
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
May 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.
Dec 17, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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 ...more
Jul 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book about a language-less deaf man and the young woman who patiently introduces him to the fact that everything has a name. The author has a passion for American Sign Language (ASL) and was neither a teacher nor linguist. You learn about his experiences--how he came to be 27 years old without language--as well as what she uncovers when she researches language acquisition in adulthood realizing how little has been published about it.
Father Nick
Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Parents of deaf children
Recommended to Father 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 ...more
Wendy Wolpert-DeWitt
Dec 11, 2014 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Wendy by: Dr. Kraft
Shelves: psychology
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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.
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book! You learn the stories and adventures the characters took. Throughout the book you learn how hard it must've been for the protagonists, Ildefonso and Susan. This made the life of Susan Schaller much harder to live, as she had to help this man at the age of 27 years old learn and understand language and communication. This book made me look through a different perspective because you see how Ildefonso struggled understanding. I hope you are able to read this book and ...more
Jun 23, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Oct 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Aug 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
The first half was three stars, the second half...six. (yes, six.) <3
Jan 20, 2014 rated it it was ok
A fascinating story, but stiffly and rather blandly told.
Mary Ann
Sep 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I had a feeling that I would love this book the moment I picked it up. Somehow, the plain, modest book cover, and the block-lettered title just seemed to call out to me.
Turned out, my sixth-sense was right. This book is extraordinary.
Before picking this book up, I have met and seen a few deaf people, and have occasionally wondered what life was like without sound; however, I realised that I have never really thought about what a language less life would be like, something that is arguably
Jun 11, 2018 added it
Like many people, I heard the podcast first.

RadioLab: “Words that Change the World.” A ten minute introduction to Ildefonso, a 27 year old deaf man who had never learned the concept of words, spoken or signed, and Susan Schaller, his younger American Sign Language teacher who set out to teach him. The story is moving and inspiring, a step outside of the cave of language, a ten minute introduction to the revelation that words are an invention and that they change who we are.

The book complements
Aileen Curfman
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the true story of a young woman who took a job as an interpreter for the deaf, and ended up in a classroom, working intensively with a deaf man who, she was told, had no language at all. At the time, "experts" in the field didn't believe that anyone with no language really existed, so without a formal education in the field, she was on her own. Her student was clearly very intelligent and extremely motivated, and they persevered until he gained some limited use of American Sign Language. ...more
Karen A. Wyle
This is in many ways a fascinating and informative account of the author's ultimately successful work with a deaf man who spoke no language at the age of 27. She was, at that time, a sign language (ASL) interpreter. She played a role similar to the role Annie Sullivan played in the life of Helen Keller.

I had one minor and one more significant problem with this book. The first: it tends to be repetitive. The second probably arises from the way the book came to be written, and the crucial event
Sep 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed reading this book! The author manages to write about complex topics in such a way that it is easy to follow and understand. I started this book thinking that it was only going to explain how the author taught a languageless deaf adult language, but I got so much more. When reading about languagelessness before, I just could not wrap my mind around the concept. Thanks to this wonderful book I now understand better and see it in a completely different light. The author also adds ...more
Heather Keimig
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was mentioned in Temple Grandin's book *Animals in Translation* and I followed up the reference and was glad I did. This is a fascinating tale of the experience of a man who had been born deaf in a poor Mexican town with no access to any sign language at all and how he was introduced to common language, shared by many people. The concept of not having any language at all is still really, really hard for me to comprehend, frankly. But here's the story. More importantly, he is quite ...more
Mar 17, 2019 rated it liked it
Three stars for average. Not bad, not exciting. The ending was anticlimactic and the author self-focused. I did enjoy taking the time to think from a different perspective, which was exactly why this book caught my attention at the library.
Monica Hughes
Feb 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was an easy read. Read it in a couple of days. I was captivated by Ildefonso’s story. There were a couple of times I got lost in the stories, and there was a lot of repetition. But the story is worth the read. I know I couldn’t have done any better writing this story, so Kudos to Susan!
Nov 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reviewed on the blog.
Michelle Estella Usher
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Opened up a while new understanding of how language works!
Bryce Tucker
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it
"A Man Without Words" is a book that could have been outstanding based off the true story it's telling, but greatly misses the mark.

Susan Schaller, either through inexperience or through ill-intent, taints this book with her morally gross view Ildefonso and her withholding of important information until the last few chapters.

This book is worth a read, if only to point you towards better works, but is way too biased to be taken seriously.
Jul 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Sydney Grace
Mar 17, 2016 rated it liked it
The book I read this quarter for SSR, was A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller. Susan Schaller, who was a young graduate student that was sent to a community college to become an interpreter, meets a deaf, languageless man named Ildefonso. Ildefonso was a 28-year old man who was born deaf and was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico. The first day Susan walked into the community college, not expecting to be working there for long, ends up noticing Ildefonso all by himself, and ...more
Daniel Lauron
Mar 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
"A Man Without Words" was a good, eye-opening biography. It depicts the life of a language less man from the perspective of a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. This interpreter starts a part-time job in an ASL school for challenged deaf persons. While there, the interpreter, Susan Schaller, meets a deaf Hispanic man who has never experienced language of any kind. After many attempts to describe to him that everything is classified with words, she desperately points at the picture ...more
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