How Do Deaf People Learn to Speak?

Deafness is profound hearing loss, wherein people may only be able to hear very little or nothing at all.
Deafness is profound hearing loss, wherein people may only be able to hear very little or nothing at all.

Deafness is profound hearing loss, wherein people may only be able to hear very little or nothing at all. Some people may be born deaf (congenital deafness). In some, it may occur during early childhood due to genetic factors, trauma, infections, etc. Some people may become deaf later in life due to injury, exposure to loud noises, surgery in head and neck regions and other underlying medical conditions. Deaf people need to learn the ways to communicate. Several ways are there that may be learned to communicate.

Normally, young children pick up and respond to auditory cues from their surroundings, including different sounds and tones of voice. By the age of one year, they may begin to imitate the sounds that parents make if their hearing is normal. Learning to speak is typically difficult for a person born deaf or became deaf at a young age. Learning to talk can be a long and difficult process. They may often never be able to speak because they have never heard normal sounds and speech. The process is usually easier for people who have become deaf later during childhood or life after acquiring some speech skills. This is because they are familiar with sounds and speech. Hence, with appropriate training, such people would be able to regain their speech and language skills.

Strategies for deaf people to learn speech

A trained speech and language therapist works with people with hearing loss and helps them learn speech. Even with training, it may still be difficult for people to understand the speech of a deaf person. For example, they may have difficulty using sounds that are softer or more difficult for them to hear. They may speak either too softly or too loudly. They may talk at a different pitch and sound different compared to a person with normal hearing. It is also important that parents and caregivers take an active role in the process. Several strategies may be used to help learn speech. They include

  • Speech training. This is oral training that focuses on teaching how to produce various sounds, pronunciations, words and speech.
  • Assistive hearing devices. Hearing aids and cochlear or brainstem implants can help deaf people hear. Being able to hear, would help develop speech and language.
  • Auditory training. The individual is trained to recognize and distinguish different sounds, words and phrases from one another.
  • Lip reading. Someone with hearing loss can watch the movements of a person’s lips as they speak to understand what they are saying.

What is an assisted hearing device?

Hearing aids and cochlear or brainstem implants are examples of assisted hearing devices. These would enable any person, including those who are born deaf, to be able to hear and develop speech and language.

A hearing aid is a small removable electronic device that is worn in or behind the ear to improve hearing. Hearing aids can benefit those with moderate hearing to learn. Those with severe to profound deafness would need other options, such as a bone-anchored hearing aid, cochlear implant, auditory brainstem implant.

A bone-anchored hearing aid is a type of hearing aid used in people who have conductive hearing loss and cannot benefit from a hearing aid. It is a surgically implanted device behind the ear. It allows the bone to transfer sound to a functioning cochlea (the inner ear) rather than via the middle ear, which happens in normal hearing. Hence, this process is called direct bone conduction.

A cochlear implant is a type of assistive device that is surgical implanted in the ear. It can help those with severe or profound deafness. There is also an external portion that sits behind the ear. They work by directly stimulating the auditory nerve (nerve responsible for hearing) and amplifying sounds. These days, 80 percent of children born in the United States get a cochlear implant. Cochlear implant surgery may also be done for those who lost their hearing later in life. The outcome of cochlear implant surgery can vary. Children born deaf should undergo the surgery before the age of 6 years (the earlier the better) to get the best results. When done after the age of 6 years, they would be able to hear sounds but developing speech becomes difficult. When the cochlear implant is done early during childhood, most children often grow up to have normal speech and language. Children may undergo the surgery after 12 months of age. Adults with normal speech, who lost their hearing later in life also benefit from cochlear implant surgery. Post-surgery, there is a lot of training to learn and distinguish the sounds that they are hearing.

If the child has a very thin or absent auditory nerve, a cochlear implant will not help. In such cases, an auditory brainstem implant may be done. The implant is surgically implanted in the part of the brainstem that is responsible for hearing. The auditory nerve and other structures in the nerve are bypassed, and the brainy is directly stimulated.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How People with Hearing Loss Learn Language.

Deaf Education. Learning to Talk. Hearing Loss Association of America. Assistive Listening Systems.