Deafness is the most profound form of hearing loss. People who are deaf can hear very little or may not hear anything at all.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 466 million people around the world have some form of disabling hearing loss, 34 million of which are children.

Some people are deaf from birth or early childhood due to things like genetic factors or maternal infections.

Other people may become deaf during their lifetime. This can happen from:

  • injury
  • exposure to loud noises
  • underlying health conditions

You may have wondered how exactly a deaf person learns, or in some cases, relearns, how to talk. Continue reading below as we explore this topic and more.

Very young children take in and respond to many auditory cues from their surroundings, including different sounds and tone of voice.

In fact, by age 12 months, children with normal hearing may begin to imitate the sounds that parents make.

Easier for those who learned to talk before becoming deaf

Learning to talk is often easier for people who have become deaf after acquiring some speech skills.

This is because there’s already a familiarity with some sounds and qualities that are associated with spoken language.

In these individuals, speech training may focus on reinforcing speech and language skills that have already been learned.

This can include things like practicing different sounds and learning to control tone of voice and volume.

More difficult for those who were deaf from birth or a very young age

Learning to talk can be very difficult for a person who’s deaf from birth or became deaf at a very early age.

For them, learning to talk can be a long process, requiring lots of practice. Early intervention may be very beneficial in outcomes.

Assistive devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants can help boost residual hearing for these individuals.

However, recipients still need to learn and practice different speech sounds, eventually forming them into words and sentences.

A speech language pathologist often works to help people with hearing loss learn speech. Several strategies may be used, often in combination.

Remember that learning speech is also about effectively understanding others. Therefore, these strategies not only focus on teaching someone how to speak but also on listening and understanding what others are saying.

  • Speech training. This oral training focuses on teaching individuals how to produce various sounds, eventually stringing them into words and phrases. Instruction on volume control and tone of voice may also be included.
  • Assistive devices. These devices help people with hearing loss to better perceive the sounds in their environment. Examples include hearing aids and cochlear implants.
  • Auditory training. Auditory training presents listeners with various sounds, such as syllables, words, or phrases. The listeners are then taught ways to recognize and distinguish these different sounds from one another.
  • Lip reading. Using lip reading, someone with hearing loss can watch the movements of a person’s lips as they speak. According to the CDC, in good conditions, about 40 percent of English speech sounds can be seen on the lips.

Regardless of the strategy used, it’s vital that parents and caregivers take an active role as well.

They can do this through facilitating and promoting the use of spoken language in the home and helping the recipient of training practice the skills they’re learning.

Even with the strategies above, it can still be difficult for hearing people understand a deaf person who’s speaking. For example, a deaf person may:

  • have trouble using sounds that are softer and harder for them to hear, such as “s,” “sh,” and “f”
  • speak too loudly or too softly
  • talk at a different pitch than a hearing person

Not all deaf people choose to communicate using spoken language. In fact, there are other nonverbal ways in which they can communicate. One example that you may be familiar with is American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL is a language. It has its own set of rules and grammar, just like spoken languages. People who use ASL use hand shapes, gestures, and facial expressions or body language to communicate with others.

Choosing ASL over spoken language

But why may someone choose ASL over the spoken word?

Keep in mind that speech training can be a very long and difficult process, depending on when someone became deaf.

Additionally, even after many years of speech training, it may still be difficult for hearing people to understand a deaf person when they speak.

Because of these factors, an individual may choose to use ASL over spoken language, as learning spoken language is mostly for the benefit of hearing people.

Proficiency in ASL associated with high academic achievements

People using ASL have no difficulty with acquiring other language and academic skills.

One study focused on deaf and hard of hearing students in a bilingual ASL and English program.

The study found that proficiency in ASL was associated with a positive outcome in areas like:

  • English language use
  • reading comprehension
  • math

While some may not wish to use oral speech, others may prefer it to ASL. At the end of the day, how a deaf person chooses to communicate is down to their personal choice and which methods work best for them.

A cochlear implant is a type of assistive device. While hearing aids work to amplify sounds, a cochlear implant directly stimulates the auditory nerve.

It’s estimated that about 80 percent of children deaf from birth have a cochlear implant.

How they work

Cochlear implants consist of an external portion that sits behind the ear and an internal, surgically placed portion. On a basic level, they work like this:

  • The external part collects sounds from the environment and converts them to electrical signals.
  • These electrical signals are transmitted to the internal portion of the cochlear implant, stimulating the auditory nerve.
  • The auditory nerve relays this signal to the brain, where it’s heard as a sound.

Are they effective?

The outcome of having a cochlear implant can vary greatly. It’s important to note that cochlear implants don’t lead to full, natural hearing.

Recipients still require a large amount of training to learn and distinguish the sounds that they’re hearing.

Many, but not all, people who receive one can:

  • pick up on a wider variety of sound types
  • understand speech without needing to lip-read
  • make telephone calls
  • watch TV or listen to music

What’s the controversy?

While many people may experience benefits from cochlear implantation, there’s also been opposition over implanting these devices in deaf children.

One area of concern involves language development. The early years of life are critical for obtaining a good language base.

If a child doesn’t acquire language skills during this time, they may have problems acquiring fluent language skills going forward.

ASL is a language that’s accessible to all deaf individuals. Promoting ASL learning promotes a solid foundation and fluency in language.

However, some parents of children with a cochlear implant may choose not to teach their child ASL. The worry here is that this may delay a child’s acquisition of language skills.

The deaf community also has concerns about the use of cochlear implants. This community is a group with a distinct cultural identity as well as shared language (ASL), social groups, and experiences.

Some members of the deaf community are troubled by the perception that deafness is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Others fear that widespread use of cochlear implants may lead to a decline in ASL speakers, impacting deaf culture.

It’s possible for deaf people to learn how to speak. A variety of methods may be used, including speech training and assistive devices.

How easy or difficult learning to speak may be can depend on when a person became deaf. People who became deaf after acquiring some language skills often have an easier time learning to speak.

Nevertheless, a lot of hard work and practice are needed.

Some deaf people choose not to communicate using the spoken word. Instead, they prefer to use ASL, a nonverbal language.

In the end, the way that a deaf person chooses to communicate is down to what works optimally for them as well as their personal preference.