HELEN ADAMS KELLER
HOW SHE LEARNED TO SPEAK
When nineteen months old Helen Keller was stricken with an illness
which robbed her of both sight and hearing. The infant that is blind
and deaf is of course dumb also, for being unable to see or hear the
speech of others, the child cannot learn to imitate it.
Despite her enormous handicaps, Miss Keller to-day is a college
graduate, a public speaker, and the author of several charming books.
It need scarcely be explained that this miracle was not wrought by
self-help alone. But if she had not striven with all her might to
respond to the efforts of her devoted teacher, Miss Keller would not
to-day be mistress of the unusual talent for literary expression which
makes her contributions sure of a welcome in the columns of the leading
From "The Story of My Life," by Helen Keller. Published by Doubleday,
Page & Co.
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my
teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder
when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which
it connects. It was the third of March; 1887, three months before I
was seven years old.
On the afternoon of that eventful day I stood on the porch, dumb,
expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother's signs and from the
hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to
happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon
sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell
on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the
familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the
sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel
or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me
continually for weeks, and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a
tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and
anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and
sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to
happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was
without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near
the harbour was. "Light! give me light!" was the wordless cry of my
soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to
my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the
arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all
things else, to love me.
The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me
a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent
it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until
afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan
slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once
interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally
succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish
pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand
and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a
word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in
monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in
this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat,
cup, and a few verbs like sit, stand, and walk. But my teacher
had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big
rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me
understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had
had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had
tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is
water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had
dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first
opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing
the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when
I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor
regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In
the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or
tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the
hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my
discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going
out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may
be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance
of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing
water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool
stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water,
first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed
upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness
as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow
the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that
"w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my
hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set
it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that
could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each
name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every
object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I
saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On
entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to
the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them
together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had
done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they
all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher
were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me,
"like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find
a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that
eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the
first time longed for a new day to come.
I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it.
Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the
words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were,
delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and
often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is
wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step
until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered
syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.
At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few
questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but
as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my
field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the
same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word
revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.
I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word,
"love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early
violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to
kiss me; but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except
my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into
my hand, "I love Helen."
"What is love?" I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart,
whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled
me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I
I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in
signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"
"No," said my teacher.
Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.
"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the
heat came, "Is this not love?"
It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the
sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her
head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange
that my teacher could not show me love.
A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in
symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I
had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again
and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error
in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the
lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss
Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was
going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an
For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap,
but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea.
The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief
showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.
Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"
"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun
came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at
that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch
the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the
flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You
cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into
everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were
invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.
From the beginning of my education Miss Sullivan made it a practice to
speak to me as she would speak to any hearing child; the only
difference was that she spelled the sentences into my hand instead of
speaking them. If I did not know the words and idioms necessary to
express my thoughts she supplied them, even suggesting conversation
when I was unable to keep up my end of the dialogue.
This process was continued for several years; for the deaf child does
not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless
idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The
little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and
imitation. The conversation he hears in his home stimulates his mind
and suggests topics and calls forth the spontaneous expression of his
own thoughts. This natural exchange of ideas is denied to the deaf
child. My teacher, realizing this, determined to supply the kinds of
stimulus I lacked. This she did by repeating to me as far as possible,
verbatim, what she heard, and by showing me how I could take part in
the conversation. But it was a long time before I ventured to take the
initiative, and still longer before I could find something appropriate
to say at the right time.
The next important step in my education was learning to read.
As soon as I could spell a few words my teacher gave me slips of
cardboard on which were printed words in raised letters. I quickly
learned that each printed word stood for an object, an act, or a
quality. I had a frame in which I could arrange the words in little
sentences; but before I ever put sentences in the frame I used to make
them in objects. I found the slips of paper which represented, for
example, "doll," "is," "on," "bed" and placed each name on its object;
then I put my doll on the bed with the words is, on, bed arranged
beside the doll, thus making a sentence of the words, and at the same
time carrying out the idea of the sentence with the things themselves.
One day, Miss Sullivan tells me, I pinned the word girl on my
pinafore and stood in the wardrobe. On the shelf I arranged the words,
is, in, wardrobe. Nothing delighted me so much as this game. My
teacher and I played it for hours at a time. Often everything in the
room was arranged in object sentences.
From the printed slip it was but a step to the printed book. I took my
"Reader for Beginners" and hunted for the words I knew; when I found
them my joy was like that of a game of hide-and-seek. Thus I began to
read. Of the time when I began to read connected stories I shall speak
For a long time I had no regular lessons. Even when I studied most
earnestly it seemed more like play than work. Everything Miss Sullivan
taught me she illustrated by a beautiful story or a poem. Whenever
anything delighted or interested me she talked it over with me just as
if she were a little girl herself. What many children think of with
dread, as a painful plodding through grammar, hard sums and harder
definitions, is to-day one of my most precious memories.
I cannot explain the peculiar sympathy Miss Sullivan had with my
pleasures and desires. Perhaps it was the result of long association
with the blind. Added to this she had a wonderful faculty for
description. She went quickly over uninteresting details, and never
nagged me with questions to see if I remembered the
day-before-yesterday's lesson. She introduced dry technicalities of
science little by little, making every subject so real that I could not
help remembering what she taught.
We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to the
house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the
fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild
grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned
to think that everything has a lesson and a suggestion.
Our favourite walk was to Keller's Landing, an old tumble-down
lumber-wharf on the Tennessee River, used during the Civil War to land
soldiers. There we spent many happy hours and played at learning
geography. I built dams of pebbles, made islands and lakes, and dug
river-beds, all for fun, and never dreamed that I was learning a
lesson. I listened with increasing wonder to Miss Sullivan's
descriptions of the great round world with its burning mountains,
buried cities, moving rivers of ice, and many other things as strange.
She made raised maps in clay, so that I could feel the mountain ridges
and valleys, and follow with my fingers the devious course of rivers.
I liked this, too; but the division of the earth into zones and poles
confused and teased my mind. The illustrative strings and the orange
stick representing the poles seemed so real that even to this day the
mere mention of temperate zone suggests a series of twine circles; and
I believe that if any one should set about it he could convince me that
white bears actually climb the North Pole.
Arithmetic seems to have been the only study I did not like. From the
first I was not interested in the science of numbers. Miss Sullivan
tried to teach me to count by stringing beads in groups, and by
arranging kindergarten straws I learned to add and subtract. I never
had patience to arrange more than five or six groups at a time. When I
had accomplished this my conscience was at rest for the day, and I went
out quickly to find my playmates.
In this same leisurely manner I studied zoology and botany.
Once a gentleman, whose name I have forgotten, sent me a collection of
fossils—tiny mollusk shells beautifully marked, and bits of sandstone
with the print of birds' claws, and a lovely fern in bas-relief. These
were the keys which unlocked the treasures of the antediluvian world
for me. With trembling fingers I listened to Miss Sullivan's
descriptions of the terrible beasts, with uncouth, unpronounceable
names, which once went tramping through the primeval forests, tearing
down the branches of gigantic trees for food, and died in the dismal
swamps of an unknown age. For a long time these strange creatures
haunted my dreams, and this gloomy period formed a sombre background to
the joyous Now, filled with sunshine and roses and echoing with the
gentle beat of my pony's hoof.
Another time a beautiful shell was given me, and with a child's
surprise and delight I learned how a tiny mollusk had built the
lustrous coil for his dwelling place, and how on still nights, when
there is no breeze stirring the waves, the Nautilus sails on the blue
waters of the Indian Ocean in his "ship of pearl."
It was in the spring of 1890 that I learned to speak. The impulse to
utter audible sounds had always been strong within me. I used to make
noises, keeping one hand on my throat while the other hand felt the
movements of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a noise
and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark. I also liked to keep
my hand on a singer's throat, or on a piano when it was being played.
Before I lost my sight and hearing, I was fast learning to talk, but
after my illness it was found that I had ceased to speak because I
could not hear. I used to sit in my mother's lap all day long and keep
my hands on her face because it amused me to feel the motions of her
lips; and I moved my lips, too, although I had forgotten what talking
was. My friends say that I laughed and cried naturally, and for a
while I made many sounds and word-elements, not because they were a
means of communication, but because the need of exercising my vocal
organs was imperative. There was, however, one word the meaning of
which I still remembered, water. I pronounced it "wa-wa." Even this
became less and less intelligible until the time when Miss Sullivan
began to teach me. I stopped using it only after I had learned to
spell the word on my fingers.
I had known for a long time that the people about me used a method of
communication different from mine; and even before I knew that a deaf
child could be taught to speak, I was conscious of dissatisfaction with
the means of communication I already possessed. One who is entirely
dependent upon the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of
narrowness. This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing,
forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled. My thoughts
would often rise and beat up like birds against the wind; and I
persisted in using my lips and voice. Friends tried to discourage this
tendency, fearing lest it would lead to disappointment. But I
persisted, and an accident soon occurred which resulted in the breaking
down of this great barrier—I heard the story of Ragnhild Kaata.
In 1890 Mrs. Lamson, who had been one of Laura Bridgman's teachers, and
who had just returned from a visit to Norway and Sweden, came to see
me, and told me of Ragnhild Kaata, a deaf and blind girl in Norway who
had actually been taught to speak. Mrs. Lamson had scarcely finished
telling me about this girl's success before I was on fire with
eagerness. I resolved that I, too, would learn to speak. I would not
rest satisfied until my teacher took me, for advice and assistance, to
Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. This lovely,
sweet-natured lady offered to teach me herself, and we began the
twenty-sixth of March, 1890.
Miss Fuller's method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her
face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made
a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion, and in an hour had
learned six elements of speech: M, P, A, S, T, I. Miss Fuller gave me
eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I
felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, "It is warm." True,
they were broken and stammering syllables; but they were human speech.
My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was
reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and
No deaf child who has earnestly tried to speak the words which he has
never heard—to come out of the prison of silence, where no tone of
love, on song of bird, no strain of music ever pierces the
stillness—can forget the thrill of surprise, the joy of discovery
which came over him when he uttered his first word. Only such a one
can appreciate the eagerness with which I talked to my toys, to stones,
trees, birds and dumb animals, or the delight I felt when at my call
Mildred ran to me or my dogs obeyed my commands. It is an unspeakable
boon to me to be able to speak in winged words that need no
interpretation. As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my
words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers.
But it must not be supposed that I could really talk in this short
time. I had learned only the elements of speech. Miss Fuller and Miss
Sullivan could understand me, but most people would not have understood
one word in a hundred. Nor is it true that, after I had learned these
elements, I did the rest of the work myself. But for Miss Sullivan's
genius, untiring perseverance and devotion, I could not have progressed
as far as I have toward natural speech. In the first place, I laboured
night and day before I could be understood even by my most intimate
friends; in the second place, I needed Miss Sullivan's assistance
constantly in my efforts to articulate each sound clearly and to
combine all sounds in a thousand ways. Even now she calls my attention
every day to mispronounced words.
All teachers of the deaf know what this means, and only they can at all
appreciate the peculiar difficulties with which I had to contend. In
reading my teacher's lips I was wholly dependent on my fingers: I had
to use the sense of touch in catching the vibrations of the throat, the
movements of the mouth, and the expression of the face; and often this
sense was at fault. In such cases I was forced to repeat the words or
sentences, sometimes for hours, until I felt the proper ring in my own
voice. My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and
weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that
I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had
accomplished, spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their
pleasure in my achievement.
"My little sister will understand me now," was a thought stronger than
all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, "I am not dumb now." I
could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to
my mother and reading her responses from her lips. It astonished me to
find how much easier it is to talk than to spell with the fingers, and
I discarded the manual alphabet as a medium of communication on my
part; but Miss Sullivan and a few friends still use it in speaking to
me, for it is more convenient and more rapid than lip-reading.
Just here, perhaps, I had better explain our use of the manual
alphabet, which seems to puzzle people who do not know us. One who
reads or talks to me spells with his hand, using the single-hand manual
alphabet generally employed by the deaf. I place my hand on the hand
of the speaker so lightly as not to impede its movements. The position
of the hand is as easy to feel as it is to see. I do not feel each
letter any more than you see each letter separately when you read.
Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible, and some of my
friends spell rapidly—about as fast as an expert writes on a
typewriter. The mere spelling is, of course, no more a conscious act
than it is in writing.
When I had made speech my own, I could not wait to go home. At last
the happiest of happy moments arrived. I had made my homeward journey,
talking constantly to Miss Sullivan, not for the sake of talking, but
determined to improve to the last minute. Almost before I knew it, the
train stopped at the Tuscumbia station, and there on the platform stood
the whole family. My eyes fill with tears now as I think how my mother
pressed me close to her, speechless and trembling with delight, taking
in every syllable that I spoke, while little Mildred seized my free
hand and kissed it and danced, and my father expressed his pride and
affection in a big silence. It was as if Isaiah's prophecy had been
fulfilled in me. "The mountains and the hills shall break forth before
you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their