I have been living in Madrid for nearly 5 years. During the first two years, I was actively learning Spanish. I was attending evening classes, listening to daily language-learning podcasts on my commute, and was making an effort to converse with Spanish members of staff at work.
My sudden hearing loss happened at the start of my third year in Spain, and since then there has been a marked change in my ability and confidence in learning a second language. Now, over two and a half years following my hearing loss, I still feel like I haven’t addressed this deflated self-confidence.
After I lost the hearing in my left ear, I didn’t return to the evening classes. The sessions were heavily structured around mixing learners together to work in pairs or small groups, requiring them to contribute to the discussion. During each class there would be long periods of time involving many people talking in their groups, which meant overlapping voices, bouncing around the small sparsely furnished classrooms, making hearing and focusing any particular person’s voice very difficult. There were students from many different countries, which would add another obstacle to language learning in a class; with only hearing in one ear comes a difficulty understanding the different intonations and complexities of accents.
As I gradually started to discover mechanisms to manage life with single-sided deafness, I also began to realize that the matter of learning Spanish had been unintentionally suspended during the prior months. And, since returning some focus to my Spanish communication skills, I have realised that learning a language following a hearing loss can present some challenges.
My preferred way of learning Spanish was always through hearing it: by listening to podcasts and eavesdropping on conversations. I continue to be able to recognise Spanish words which I am already familiar with, particularly ones used habitually in conversation. New words, however, pass by quickly in speech, before I have time to think about the way they may be spelt or correctly pronounced. It is now more of a challenge to hear all the phonemes in a word which makes it difficult to identify new words and phrases accurately. Previously I could hear a new word once or twice and be able to spell it. Now, it takes many listens, and sometimes I just can’t hear it clearly.
When learning a new language, it generally takes time to process what has been said in conversation or an instruction, before reacting. Often it has been moments after speaking to someone when I realise what has been said, and by that point, the conversation has perhaps moved on. Similarly, with my hearing loss, it can take a moment to consider spoken information, which I may have only partly grasped, before attempting to decode what has been said. And so, a language learner who also has hearing loss may need extra time for reflection in conversation to enable comprehension.
A pause in dialogue may suggest to a native speaker that they have not been understood when their conversation partner is a language learner. If I ask a Spanish speaker to repeat themselves or if I say ‘pardon’ to signal I haven’t heard what they have said, they often reiterate their words in English, after hearing my accent. They assume it is a matter of misunderstanding due to language ability, rather than a hearing concern. This can be frustrating. I appreciate someone making an effort to speak to me in English with the intention of being helpful, but conversely, it isn’t aiding my language learning or confidence. I know my understanding of spoken Spanish is good, but with the abundance of background noise in public places, there are rarely the ideal listening conditions to facilitate this.
With my hearing loss came a difficulty in gauging the volume of my voice when there are other noises present. If I speak in Spanish and I don’t receive a response, I quickly lose confidence in my words. I usually assume I have pronounced or phrased something incorrectly. But, maybe at times, the issue isn’t my Spanish, rather that I simply speaking too quietly and am not being heard.
Quite surprisingly, I feel that I have developed some skills that ‘hearing people’ may not be as adept at employing in communication as those without full hearing ability; skills that actually help me to comprehend a second language. My hearing loss has prompted me to develop my skills in interpreting tones and in extracting meaning from fragments of dialogue. I am accustomed to filling in gaps left by undetected or misheard words in speech. When someone I know well, such as my boyfriend or my sister, makes a quick comment without first getting my attention, I may hear a collection of tones rather than words. Using my familiarity with their common speech patterns and knowledge of context I can often make a correct assumption regarding what they have said, sometimes without actually hearing a single word. When applied to communication in Spanish, I am able to use this skill to make conjectures, and while this method isn’t conducive to gaining a thorough understanding of a conversation, I am generally able to grasp the essence of a discussion.
I never really appreciated how much I depended on my hearing when learning Spanish. Although it can be challenging and may demand a lot of patience, hearing loss isn’t a barrier to learning a new language. There are many ways to learn a language and there are many resources available, such as phone apps and podcasts with transcripts. I now realise that in order to continue progression in speaking and listening tasks with my hearing loss, I will benefit from focussing more on the written aspects of Spanish. Visual familiarity with new words and sentence structures will help me identify these in dialogue. Perhaps, most importantly, I need to concentrate on building my confidence in continuing to learn a language without full sound.
If you have experience of learning a new language with hearing loss, I’d love you to share your stories and any tips you have. Please feel free to leave a comment.
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