Throughout history, deafness and mutism have been linked. A deaf person’s ability to speak has been regarded as a sign of talent, humanity or education, or a lack thereof. In the study of deaf history, this attitude is called oralism.

Oralism as a concept emerged in the field of deaf education where it referred to a teaching method in which deaf pupils are taught using speech and lipreading is emphasised. Deaf people regard it as an approach that does not acknowledge the role of sign language in their lives.

The oral teaching method was formulated in the 18th century, but it was influenced by earlier texts on the topic. Oralism was based on assumptions on the nature of spoken and signed languages. It influenced deaf education and was one of the reasons behind the ban on sign language in the 19th and 20th centuries. Based on assumptions on the nature of spoken and signed language, the method was applied in a very similar manner in different parts of the world.

Starting from the mid-18th century, deaf education was shaped by two different schools of thought. The French method emphasised sign language whereas the German method focused on the use of speech. While schools were founded in Europe by the advocates of both methods, oralism became the prevalent method at the end of the 19th century, and it was used in Finland for a century. The popularity of oralism has been explained with several factors, such as industrialisation, nationalism, Darwinian linguistics and eugenics.

The era of oralism is generally thought to have ended in the late 1960s, early 1970s when sign language was gradually reinstated in schools.