Learning a New Language with Hearing Loss

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.

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.

 

This article was recently featured on The Limping Chicken – the world’s most popular deaf blog! 

 

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Author: myhearinglossstory

Hi, My name is Carly. I am 38 years old and I am currently living in Spain. I am originally from a small seaside town in Yorkshire called Bridlington, and have also lived in China and Thailand. I am an Early Years primary school teacher, and have been teaching for more than 12 years. I love walking in the countryside, getting lost in Madrid, going out for breakfast, taking photos, listening to music, storytelling podcasts, baking, running, drinking wine, and eating spicy food. In August 2016, I experienced sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear. I started this blog as a way to inform my friends and family about my progress, for anyone else who is going through a similar experience as me, or for anybody who is interested in learning about this type of hearing loss, and the way it can affect everyday life.

8 thoughts on “Learning a New Language with Hearing Loss”

  1. Hi Carly. This all seems so familiar. I certainly agree on the context thing. In so many conversations if the context is clear then missed words don’t matter nearly so much. The pausing is confusing to people. While I am cogitating all that has been said, they think I have ignored them.

    The caption phones I have installed in my house have a 2-3 second time lag between what is said by the other party and what the stenographer types on the screen. I start most conversations by telling the other speaker that there may be a pause before I answer them as I read their words on the screen.

    I joke with friends that I am going to learn a second language so I can misunderstand people in two languages.

    Have you heard from Katie? She said she reached out to you on skype (I believe) to arrange a meet up. She really likes the family she is staying with and started classes two days ago. I know she would love to talk with you about her vegetarian needs. She tutors Spanish here in Virginia. Maybe she could help you somehow. Hmmm..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Al,
      Thank you for your comment 🙂 How are you?

      Isn’t it funny how conversation can often be understood through just catching the odd word? When I’m in a noisy environment, I cling onto those fragments of conversation and try ad construct them to make sense. I think we are very skilled 😉

      The caption phone sounds great. I’m sure it must make communication much easier by telephone, and means that you can make your own calls. I wonder what other helpful inventions will come in the future.

      I’ve heard a few times from Katie. We are having a little trouble communicating as our phone numbers don’t seem to be cooperating with each other! We are managing to chat through Skype though. Hopefully, we will meet soon. I’m so glad she likes the family she is staying with, and living with a Spanish family is going to be so great for her language learning.

      I hope you are well, Al. I was thinking of you the other day. I have some ideas for a novel…Maybe I will try and write a book like you 🙂

      Take care
      Carly

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great. Hope you two can hookup soon.

        As for the novel, if you decide to do it I can recommend some great software programs that help you get it done.

        There’s a hurricane going on outside right now so wanted to get this out while we still have power. Yikes!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll try to remember to take a photo of Katie and I, when we finally meet. Then we can send it to you 🙂

          I’ll let you know if I decide to have a go at writing my book…I think I will need lots of help and advice.

          Has the hurricanes passed? I saw it on the news! Are you ok?

          Best of wishes
          Carly

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Hi Carly. We survived hurricane with minimal damage. Worked yesterday cleaning up the yard. Talked to Katie’s mom yesterday, she’s starting to feel a bit stressed now that school has started.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Hi Al. Glad you are all ok after the hurricane. I hope there wasn’t too much cleaning to be done.
          I’m hoping to see Katie when she has her visa sorted. It can be quite stressful sorting out paperwork. She’s going to let me know when she’s free to meet 🙂
          Take care
          Carly

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Carly, I love your blog. my experiences are similar to yours, even my deviated septum. Try a very low salicylate diet and don’t use any lotion on your skin. Avoid all palm and coconut oil and MSG, tomatoes, grapes and wine and spices. Yes that is bland but it keeps dizziness away. I think my hearing loss is directly associated with a coconut lotion massage and also from MSG. When I read that you made tea and then got dizzy in the shower, I thought, “ That is exactly what would happen to me if I drank that.” The vestibular migraine idea is my most reasonable diagnosis, following many misdiagnoses. Revisit that. Things that help me are DAO supplements and taking acerola vitamin C.
    After reading your blog about the concert, I bought tickets to a concert I will go to next weekend. I declined several concerts but thanks to you I am brave enough now. I still have mid-low tone heating in my bad ear but the loss is enough to affect everything without my hearing aids so I have a bit of a slight clue about it. The tinnitus is so terrible. What did you eat the day you lost your hearing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there,

      Thank you for the comment.
      Like you, I have tried eliminating many things from my diet. I have found that salt definitely has an impact on my tinnitus, ear fullness and dizziness. I am also affected by changes in weather, tiredness and stress. I haven’t tried cutting spices from my diet or tomatoes. Perhaps I will explore this a little more. Thank you for the tips.

      I have recently had visual aura episodes and the specialist thinks I am experiencing vestibular migraine. I’m going to try the supplements you recommended.

      You asked what I ate the day I lost my hearing. Well, it was mid-morning when it happened. I assume I had some cereal or a piece of toast before leaving the house. Then about an hour or so before the hearing loss, I ate a homemade cereal bar (dates, nuts, oats etc). I actually remember feeling quite sick on my bus commute early in the morning, as there were no available seats, and I had to stand in the aisle. The journey wasn’t to my usual school where I worked, it was to another school which is further away – about an hour by bus…There are so many factors that I look back on and think they could have played a part in my hearing loss…

      I am so glad you feel you can try and go to a concert! I’m sure you will, but make sure you take ear protection so that you can enjoy the music as much as possible, without the worry of further hearing damage. But, most importantly, I hope you have a wonderful time 🙂

      Best wishes,
      Carly

      Like

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