Oralism arrives in Finland

In the late 19th century, the use of sign language in tuition was increasingly criticised and the benefits of various teaching methods were continuously debated. The advocates of oralism stated the connection between thinking and speech as grounds for favouring the method and believed that the use of sign language slowed down the learning of speech.

When state-run schools for the deaf were established in Finland, decisions on deaf education were increasingly made by hearing people. As a result, oralism gained a stronger foothold. The main influence in the field was the head of the Turku school, Carl Henrik Alopaeus. At first, he was in favour of teaching speech but had reservations about using speech to teach.

Alopaeus changed his mind later. Apparently, he thought that better results could be achieved with the oral method, particularly with regard to learning to speak and write. At the time, he thought that tuition of speech should only be given to those students who had some speech and hearing left. However, later his views became stricter and in 1875 he stated that the oral method helped deaf pupils develop their knowledge of concepts and ability to express themselves. The shift to the oral method resulted in the need to have separate schools for children from Finnish- and Swedish-speaking families and deaf people could no longer work as teachers. However, the oral method would only benefit the hard of hearing and pupils who lost their hearing later in life.

Uno Cygnaeus, the father of the Finnish public school system, also influenced the teaching methods used for deaf pupils. He prepared plans for for the public school system, visiting the Weissenfels school for the deaf in Prussia where the oral method was used. Cygnaeus was taken with this method and began to think the goal in deaf education should be learning to speak.

The first school in Finland to use the oral method was the Kuopio school for the deaf. In 1874, G. K. Hendell, who had learned about the Weissenfels school and schools in Norway and Sweden, became its head teacher. Hendell was convinced of the benefits of the oral method and began to use it with his pupils.

He said the method was practical and the goal was to equip the pupils with skills required for day-to-day activities. The idea was to eliminate obstacles that deaf students faced in the hearing world and to enable them to get along with others. Hendell also believed that education enabled deaf people to be useful members of society. Therefore, deaf education should focus on everyday skills and be simple and practical by nature. This was the approach typically adopted by Finnish oralists.

Hendell regarded tuition given in sign language as complicated and strange. He did not reject sign language totally but thought that ‘natural signs’ and written language could be resorted to when the oral method was not feasible. In contrast, he did not accept the use of a manual alphabet at all. Hendell admitted studying with the oral method was extremely tedious, but he insisted that the results were worth the effort.

In 1874, Hendell published an article on deaf education, giving his reasons for favouring oralism and presenting the oral method process. Hendell had the same basic idea as Heinicke: deaf people had to be led out of the darkness and taught to speak.

Of the early oralists, only Alopaeus could sign so they were unaware of the possibilities offered by sign languages even though they admitted sign language was important to deaf people.