Roughly 34 million children around the world are affected by some sort of hearing loss, including deafness. Deafness is a type of hearing loss that results in having very little to no functional hearing.

Some people are born deaf, while others become deaf later in life due to:

  • diseases
  • accidents
  • genetics
  • other circumstances

Given the changes in the brain that occur due to hearing loss, deaf people may relate to language differently than people who are able to hear.

In this article, we’ll discuss how language is affected in deaf people, as well as some myths and facts about being deaf. We’ll also touch on how to be considerate and an advocate for the deaf people in our community.

In order to understand how language affects our thoughts, and how this affects the way that deaf people think, we must first understand the underlying nature of human thought.

Humans generally think in strings of words, images, or a combination of both:

  • Some people think primarily in words, meaning that their thoughts are dominated by words and narrations.
  • Other people think primarily in images, meaning that their thoughts are dominated by images and pictures.

People who were born deaf

The ability to hear words can influence whether someone thinks in words or pictures.

Many people who are born deaf have never had the chance to hear spoken speech. This makes it very unlikely that they can also think using spoken speech.

Instead, because the primary method for deaf people to process language is through visual forms of communication, they’re more likely to think in images, according to a 2006 study.

These images may be images and pictures of objects. Or, they may involve seeing word signs, such as in sign language, or seeing moving lips, such as with lip reading.

People who were not born deaf

This phenomenon of visually seeing signs and moving lips may also be intertwined with auditory thoughts (words) in people who were not born deaf.

In this case, the thoughts of previously hearing people would be affected by how much language they learned and what their native language is, among other factors.

There has been a lot of research on what else happens to the language-related centers of the brain when someone is born deaf.

The two primary areas of the brain affected by deafness are the temporal lobe and the left hemisphere.

The temporal lobe contains Wernicke’s area, which plays a role in processing sounds and written and spoken language.

The left hemisphere contains Broca’s area, which plays a role in the translation of thoughts to speech.

When someone is born deaf, not being able to hear speech or language can affect these areas of the brain.

However, this doesn’t mean that Wernicke’s area or Broca’s area don’t activate in deaf people. Instead, a 2008 study found that these areas have been shown to activate for sign language instead of speech.

The evidence suggests that the brain responds to the perception and production of sign language in deaf people the same way that it responds to the perception and production of speech in people who are able to hear.

In fact, a small research study conducted in 2000 tested the language and speech-related areas of the brain in deaf participants and hearing participants.

They found similar language activation areas in the brain between both deaf and hearing participants.

There are some common misconceptions about how being deaf affects someone’s life.

Here are some myths and facts about deafness that can hopefully help clear up some of those misconceptions.

Myth: All hearing loss is the same

Fact: Hearing loss can range from very mild to very severe. Most people who are born deaf generally experience profound hearing loss from the moment of birth.

This type of hearing loss is congenital and differs from hearing loss that can develop in childhood.

Myth: Hearing aids can restore hearing loss in deaf people

Fact: Hearing aids are generally an intervention used for mild to moderate hearing loss.

If someone is born profoundly deaf, a cochlear implant may be a more appropriate medical intervention that may help restore some hearing.

Myth: Only older people can be deaf

Fact: While hearing loss is a common condition that affects us as we age, roughly 0.2 to 0.3 percent of children are born with varying levels of hearing loss, including deafness.

Myth: Sign language is universal

Fact: There’s no one universal sign language spoken by all deaf people.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the language spoken by deaf Americans and is different from the sign languages spoken in other countries, like Britain or Japan.

Myth: All deaf people can read lips

Fact: Not every deaf person uses lip reading as an effective form of communication. In fact, there are many factors that influence how difficult lip reading can be, such as the person speaking or the language spoken.

Myth: Being deaf doesn’t affect the other senses

Fact: Most people who are born deaf have senses that function in an otherwise “normal” capacity.

However, some 2012 research has suggested that the auditory cortex of the brain, which normally processes sound, processes visual and touch stimuli to a higher degree in deaf people.

Myth: Deaf people can’t drive

Fact: Deaf people can certainly drive and can do so as safely and efficiently as those without hearing impairment.

In the case of emergency vehicles that require auditory awareness, there are some devices that can help deaf people recognize their presence.

Myth: Deaf people can’t talk

Fact: It’s an outdated misconception that people who are deaf cannot talk. Outside of other conditions that would prevent speech, deaf people can talk, but they may have trouble controlling their voice in the absence of sound.

Someone being deaf isn’t an excuse for people to be inconsiderate or exclusive. It’s the job of our entire society to ensure that we’re inclusive and respectful of people’s disabilities.

Here are a few tips for how you can be considerate and an advocate for the people who are deaf in your community:

  • Speak in full, clear sentences with deaf children, as this can help strengthen their language skills. Children are fluid learners and can pick up new skills with ease. When you’re speaking to a child who’s deaf, using sign language and clear speech can help enforce language learning.
  • Keep a direct line of sight and speak slowly and clearly when speaking with someone who’s deaf. If you’re speaking directly with a deaf person who understands lip reading, keeping a clear view of your face and mouth can help them understand your speech.
  • Don’t use patronizing language or behavior just because someone is deaf. Everyone deserves respect and kindness, whether they’re affected by a disability or not. If you wouldn’t use patronizing language or behaviors with hearing people, don’t do it with deaf people.
  • Be aware and inclusive in social situations that involve family members, friends, or coworkers who are deaf. In social situations, some deaf people can find themselves left out. Whether a family member or a friend, make sure to include them in your conversations. The same applies to coworkers or strangers — an offer of inclusion can go a long way in making someone feel comfortable and welcomed.
  • Use accessibility options when necessary, such as closed captioning or even translators. When necessary, use the accessibility options available to you. For example, if you’re hiring someone who’s deaf, the use of a translator can help to ease the transition. Accessibility options in other situations can also help support inclusivity.
  • When in doubt, ask what the person needs. Don’t assume that every deaf person you come across communicates the same way. When in doubt, ask: how do you prefer to communicate, and what can I do to make communication easier for you?

People who are born deaf experience language differently than those who are born hearing sounds. Without the ability to hear, many deaf people rely on their sight to communicate.

Learning language through sight also affects the way that a person thinks. Most deaf people tend to think in images that represent their preferred communication style.

If you want to learn more about how to be an advocate for the deaf community, visit the National Association of the Deaf for more resources.