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! 

Hey Rosey – My Music Festival Story

I was dancing! I was smiling! Some of my hearing loss grief was lifting, and this stifled part of my personality; this love of live music, was being reignited.

The room was small with black dividers forming the walls. It was simply furnished with a black coffee table and, in contrast to the dark surroundings, two white sofas which lined adjacent walls and were pushed together in the far right corner of the room. The air was stuffy and I moved my hair back from my forehead with my hand. Sitting on one of the sofas, I took a sip of my gin and tonic in an attempt to remain composed and to try and coax my fantastically overwhelmed grin to feign a cool smile. A sense of relaxed intimacy filled the air as more people entered the room, and music began to sound in gentle tones. Despite the warm atmosphere, a confused mixture of feelings had taken hold of me: astonishment, excitement, and absolute joy. I was a stranger to this level of attention, this kindness.

At the beginning of this year, I was involved in making a radio documentary for the BBC World Service, which detailed some of my experiences following my sudden hearing loss. During a moment in the recording, I found myself in an emotional situation. I was in an empty music venue and was explaining that I would no longer be able to go to live music events, due to my sensitivity to loud noises; a consequence of my hearing loss. I realised I would never be able to see my favourite band, The National, play live.

Many aspects of life have changed for me since the day I lost full sound. I have found that it is often the small, more personal effects of losing my hearing that carry the most impact. Tiny chunks of my personality have been broken away by some of the cruel repercussions of my hearing loss. When dealing with tinnitus, dizziness, ear pressure and sensitivity to sound, I sometimes feel that my focus is driven away from the things I love; the intrinsic pieces of my personality that make me, me. I have always enjoyed music, in particular going to summer music festivals. This love of music had been repressed; forced into quietness by the accompanying conditions to my hearing loss.

A few months after the documentary recording went live, I was contacted by the National’s manager and was invited to go backstage to meet the band before a show they were playing at MadCool; a music festival in Madrid, where I live. Of course, I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the band. Yet, it was also difficult to imagine this as an experience I would be able to enjoy, or perhaps even tolerate. After all, I had spent almost three years avoiding loud noises and live music events. But, it was a wonderful opportunity and one which I couldn’t refuse. I explained my sound sensitivity issues with the tour manager and was told that, if I felt comfortable, after the Meet and Greet I could watch the concert from the side of the stage where it would be much quieter than the audience area.

The weeks leading up to the event, I was nervous and excited. I was nervous about the festival noise and volume levels. I was nervous about meeting the band. I was determined to enjoy this day as much as possible. I was in a privileged situation and was going to make the most of it, though I knew the day would bring challenges.

As well as having noise sensitivity issues, I have also been advised by specialists against attending live concerts. I needed to ensure that I wasn’t going to be in any position that could cause noise-related hearing damage. And, above all, I needed to feel comfortable. I was going in prepared. I packed a bag with my earplugs and some ear muffs. I was ready.

My boyfriend and I arrived at the festival on a very hot day. The vibrations of the sounds as we approached the outdoor venue caused some pain in my ears; I had forgotten the strength of live music. Luckily, we didn’t have to spend much time in the main grounds of the festival.

After enjoying some time in the artists’ area, the band’s tour manager came to collect us. We followed her as she moved briskly, and within seconds we were walking down a black corridor with labelled doors on either side. I glanced up and read one of the labels: ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’. Oh my goodness! – We were in the artists dressing room area!

We reached the end of the corridor and I stopped for a moment at the realisation that I was about to meet my favourite band. “This is really happening, isn’t it?” I said to my boyfriend. Until this moment, I hadn’t quite believed it.

We turned left and walked straight into The National’s dressing room. It felt like entering a scene from a film. The first person I saw was one of the guitarists, Aaron, standing in the doorway playing his guitar. He greeted me and introduced himself. We were quickly introduced to the other band members and I had a brief chat with Matt, the lead singer. My boyfriend was busy talking to some of the other band members when Matt asked me to sit down on one of the white sofas. He told me to choose a good spot. I didn’t know what he meant by this, so I placed myself to the left of where he sat down (my hearing side) so that whatever happened, I would have some chance of hearing him.

Matt was joined by Gail, one of the female vocalists on their new album, and they were handed a sheet of song lyrics. I read the title: Hey Rosey.

And then, without any announcement, they began to sing. Music played in beautiful acoustic notes and the gentle tones meant that I was able to listen and enjoy it without pain. I thought perhaps the band were rehearsing before going on stage. But, very soon I realised they were playing solely for us. There wasn’t going to be a group of special guests as I’d expected – we were the only ones! This song was ours. I took a sip of my gin and tonic.

When Matt, the lead singer, began to sing I was reminded of a time a few years ago when my boyfriend bought me some new headphones. They were much better quality than I was used to, and to test the sound quality I played a song by The National. The music sounded so clear, almost like I was sitting in the room with them. At the time I commented that it was like a private serenade through my headphones. But, at this moment, I realised it was nothing close.

I tried to take it all in; looking at the faces of the band members, listening to the music, and enjoying the atmosphere. I wanted to be able to remember these moments; sharing this intimate display of creativity.

After the music stopped, I continued talking to Matt. He asked a little about my condition and he commented on how generous he thought I had been in sharing my story through the documentary.

Continuing the theme of the documentary that had brought me to this moment, I asked Matt whether there was a sound that he treasured. He paused for a second. Then suddenly he was visibly struck with emotion. He threw himself back in his chair and held his head in his hands, and replied, “The sound of my daughter giggling…her giggling.”

Soon, we were ushered into a black van and were taken to the backstage area. The stage manager showed us the setlist of songs and explained where we could stand on the stage. I was hoping I would be able to enjoy this, without the worry of hearing damage or sound sensitivity issues.

We watched as the band entered the stage, a few metres from where we were standing. Then the concert began.

I was wearing my earplugs and was able to tolerate the volume level of the music. From the side of the stage where we were standing, the vocals were sometimes difficult to hear, yet the feeling of music dancing through my body filled me with excitement. This energy, I hadn’t experienced for almost three years.

Matt dedicated the song Hey Rosey to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him say my name, but my boyfriend alerted me, and I saw Matt waving. I waved back with unreserved delight. I was dancing! I was smiling! Some of my hearing loss grief was lifting, and this stifled part of my personality; this love of live music, was being reignited. I was filled with exhilaration. I thought I would never be able to go to a live concert again, and here I was, watching my favourite band from the side of the stage like a rockstar!

I have come so far on my hearing loss journey. In the documentary, I spoke about how I was trying to be aware of the sounds that I love, and to not take them for granted. This love of music will always be a part of me, and I hope to be able to continue to appreciate music throughout my life, whatever my hearing capacity. And, if this was to be the last concert I’ll ever attend, rest assured I enjoyed every moment.

Thank you to The National, Shaun Gibson from Straight and Narrow Artist Management, AJ Faber, and everyone else who made our backstage experience so special. Thank you also to Chelsea Dickenson from Audio Always who, without her documentary, this would never have happened. It was a truly amazing experience and one which I will treasure. You have all made my smile brighter.

Click here or below for the dressing room acoustic session.

 

Living with Single-Sided Deafness

I lost the hearing in my left ear through sudden hearing loss in August 2016. There wasn’t a known cause for my hearing loss, I wasn’t feeling ill and I didn’t have an infection. One day the world to the left of me just fell into silence. The hearing loss was profound which means I have no functional hearing in my left ear, and for just over two and a half years I have been living my life with single-sided deafness (SSD).

People with SSD are able to hear through their ‘good’ ear, yet have a profound hearing loss in their other. I am thankful that I am able to hear with my right ear, yet living with SSD comes with its challenges.

Sound localisation is a skill enabled by having two working ears, and so with only one hearing ear, I have no idea where sound is coming from. I might hear some music or a noise, but I don’t know which way to look to see what has produced the sound. Trying to find a mobile phone that is ringing results in me wandering hopelessly around my apartment with my ‘good’ ear leading the way and looking to see if I can spot it, usually ending up back where I started and realising the phone had been next to me all along. Locating a music source is also a challenge. There was one occasion where I was walking in the centre of Madrid, where I live, and I could hear a busker playing the guitar and singing a Bob Marley song. Whilst gazing around to see if I could find the owner of the interesting staccato-type singing I stopped in my tracks with a jump as I almost fell over the person responsible; who was positioned in my path, undetected by my gazing view and lack of directional hearing.

Thinking that all sounds are coming from my right has resulted in some scary instances when crossing roads when I haven’t realised traffic is approaching from my deaf side. It has also resulted in some, in hindsight, comical moments. One day, I was sitting on a seat at the end of a row of seats, on the metro train. I thought that I could hear someone playing the accordion somewhere far down to the right of the train. I was feeling relaxed, and as I tried to focus on the tune that was being played, I saw the woman opposite looking at something next to me. I turned to my left, to where she was looking, only for me to jump up in my seat as I let out a little yelp; startled to see the accordion player was actually standing right next to me, on my deaf side.

My boyfriend automatically walks on my right-hand ‘good’ side where he knows I will hear him. This prevents me from having to continuously turn to face him with my ‘good’ ear, in attempts to catch some snippets of conversation. With friends, who often forget which is my hearing side, or for those who don’t consider it, I place myself on their left. When they inadvertently change sides whilst crossing a road or when they stop to look at something in a shop window, I find myself dancing around them; trying to position myself as quickly as possible back on their left side.

When I’m on my own in everyday places and situations I sometimes feel vulnerable. I worry about crossing the road, and not knowing which direction to move out of the way when I hear the siren of an emergency vehicle. I worry about strangers talking to me, and not being able to hear them, or even worse failing to acknowledge them; if they have addressed me on my deaf side. I unwittingly ignore people to the left of me and often notice a frown on a stranger’s face, presumably because I have failed to respond to them or to move out of their way. I find myself constantly scanning my surroundings; checking people’s faces to see if they show any sign or clue that they are speaking to me.

With single-sided deafness, I find it difficult to hear when there are other noises present. Our brains are responsible for selective listening, which is more challenging without the help of a second ear. In a noisy environment, it is difficult to focus on a single person’s voice. Socialising can be demanding amongst background noise. In restaurants and bars I have learnt to sit in a corner, or with my deaf ear against a wall and my hearing ear facing the person I am speaking to, in order to have some chance at hearing them in conversation. I have learnt that it is only possible to concentrate on listening to one person at a time.

With my single-sided deafness has come tiredness, frustration, loneliness within groups of friends in conversation, and super-sensitivity and hyper-reactivity; meaning I am startled easily by unpredictable or sudden noises. I also have difficulty multitasking and find it hard to perform another task while listening.

Yet, I have found that being able to see some humour and positives, however small, in some of the situations I find myself in, can help me stay positive. For instance, with single-sided deafness, I can block out sound during the night or when having a nap, just by putting my ‘good’ ear to the pillow. I only need to use one earphone when listening to music, and if there is someone I don’t want to listen to, I can make sure they are sitting on my deaf side.

If you or someone you know is also living with SSD, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment and share some of your experiences.

 

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

Hearing Me – A Documentary for the BBC World Service – Now Available to Listen to!

BBC World Service

It’s been two and a half years since I suddenly lost the hearing in my left ear, and today I am celebrating all I’ve achieved since my hearing loss.  Thanks to the BBC World Service, I am very happy to share this glimpse into my life without full sound.

Hearing Me is now live to listen to! Please note, a transcript is also available through the same link – just scroll down the page to download:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csynqv

Another big thank you to Chelsea Dickenson (Audio Always) who spent 4 days following me around Madrid with a microphone, and who showed me just how much energy and attention goes into making a radio documentary.

Please take a few minutes to listen and share. Thank you 🙂

Hearing Me – A Documentary for the BBC World Service

BBC World Service

Something exciting happened last month!

I was involved in making a radio documentary for the BBC World Service, which describes some of my experiences of living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and also reminds us not to take our hearing for granted.

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to take part in this, and to be able to share my story.

Hearing Me, is now up on the BBC World Service’s schedule: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csynqv

The documentary will be played several times so that people in different time zones can listen to it. You can find these by clicking ‘more’ below the programme information.

Afterwards, it will be available online through the same link as above, and it will also be part of their ‘The Documentary’ podcast series: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02nq0lx/episodes/downloads

Please note there will a transcript to enable listeners to follow the dialogue.

A huge thank you to Chelsea Dickenson and Audio Always for creating such a personal and creative piece, I absolutely love it, and hope my readers/listeners (!) all do too!

“You really need to learn how to lip read.”

I walked into a busy classroom and the teacher motioned for me to go over to where they were sitting. As I approached, they proceeded to whisper a remark about a child in their class. The whispering took place behind their hand. When they realised I hadn’t heard them, they removed their hand from their face and repeated the whispered remark; making over-pronounced shapes with their lips. The classroom was noisy, and I had no idea of context to help me in decoding what my colleague had said to me. They began to chuckle. I feigned an amused-sounding laugh; assuming this was an offhand statement which required no verbal response, and that a laugh in concurrence would suffice. Yet my reaction failed in convincing the teacher of my comprehension. The comment which followed was not about a child, but instead was directed at me. My colleague was obviously irritated at my inability to hear them, and the comment was made in response to this annoyance. It was conveyed with intense clarity. Each word was enunciated in a loud voice: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” I heard it perfectly. I left the room without a verbal response.

A couple of days later, again I went in to the same classroom and again my colleague signalled for me to go over to where they were sitting. They proceeded again to whisper a remark about a child in their class. I didn’t hear them, and again the same words were spoken: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” This time however, the comment was made twice. Both times I was unresponsive. Although I hadn’t heard them clearly the first time, I knew what had been said, though I wasn’t able to voice a response. I stared, aghast, at my colleague as they reiterated themselves, looking at me with a mixed expression of irritation shifting towards smugness; smirking at their own wit. How could they think this was appropriate, even funny?

I am accustomed to letting go of frustrating moments. I can shrug off aggravated looks from strangers when I fail to move out of their way in the supermarket, or when I don’t respond to them when they address me on my deaf side. I have learnt not to concern myself with raised annoyed voices, and irritated repetition of words. I even try to find retrospective humour in times of mishearing. I was surprised at my reaction to my colleague’s comment. My usual response of smiling to create a barrier; in protecting myself from such remarks was, for that moment, deactivated. My openness in talking about my hearing loss and explaining how it can make communication difficult, especially in noisy environments, was momentarily paused. After receiving the comment I felt vulnerable, weak, confidence drained. This colleague was someone who had asked me questions about my hearing loss and had shown interest in learning about my tinnitus. I thought they had some understanding. I failed to form a verbal response because I was in shock. I was upset. I was disappointed.

I have since had time to contemplate the interaction and have structured a response for any similar situation in the future. I should have said to my colleague that while I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, that their comment hurt me. I should have told them that I understand it can be frustrating for people to have to repeat themselves, and that this frustration may be elevated when they are busy. I would like my colleague to know that I am beginning to find myself watching lips during conversation, in situations where there is a lot of background noise, or when someone has a strong accent. I am using the shapes and movements of lips to help me translate the jumbled sounds into some meaning. I should have also told them that they had a valid point – although it could have been conveyed with some compassion or during a confidential moment. I should learn how to lip read. Not because my colleague thinks so, but because it seems like the natural next step for me in developing my communication skills.

In future I would like to give some information to my colleagues about lip reading. I would like to suggest ways of helping someone who is trying to read lips. Just because someone has experienced a hearing loss it doesn’t mean, by some kind of transferred skill, that they are instantly able to lip read with ease. These skills take time, practise and patience. I would like to explain that background noise and lack of context can make lip reading extremely difficult. That reading someone’s lips whilst they are speaking behind their hand is impossible, and that over-pronounced lip shapes are not helpful for the reader.

This experience has drawn my attention to the lack of understanding my colleagues may still have of my situation. Despite having explained some of the communication difficulties I face, I know it is easy for people to forget. I don’t look any different to how I did before my hearing loss. I am thankful for the people who ask questions, who listen, and who try to have some comprehension of my condition. Yet some people may not feel comfortable to ask questions. If I don’t explain how this type of comment can make me feel, then how are people going to know what an upsetting impact such a comment may have? Next time I will explain. Now I feel ready to respond to any similar remarks in a strong and positive manner, as the hearing loss advocate I am learning to become.

‘Top 50 Deaf Blogs’ Award!

Dear readers,

I recently received an Email from Anuj Agarwal, the Founder of Feedspot, informing me that my blog has been selected as one of the Top 50 Deaf Blogs on the web! This is the most comprehensive list of the best Deaf blogs on the internet.

I am extremely happy to have been included in this list, as this is where I found many of the deaf blogs which helped me so much when I first experienced my hearing loss, and which I still follow today.

I am currently ranking number 35! Please click here to see the complete list.

Thank you to my readers for your continued support, likes, and comments.

Carly