Given that I write, both for love and a living, communication is vitally important to me. The idea that my childhood hearing problems may have affected the development of my vocabulary is awful for me to contemplate: although I prefer writing to speaking, words and everything about them, from etymology to the way that inflection can change the sense of a sentence, bring me joy.
Because, yes: although reading is a vital part of language development, hearing is perhaps even more so since, all being well, it is done from birth. Studies have shown that, although children with hearing loss can learn concrete words such as ‘cat’ and ‘jump’ without too much trouble, they tend to struggle more with intangibles and concepts – feelings, such as envy, and prepositions, such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ – words that add layers, richness and meaning, both to speech and writing.
My hearing problems began with a particularly nasty cold, which led to inflamed ears. Colds and ear infections are known to be common among children, for reasons ranging from as-yet under-developed immune systems, to the horizontal positioning of Eustachian tubes (which changes with growth and age), making it more difficult for fluid to drain. Chronic infection of the adenoids, positioned close to these tubes, is also linked with middle ear infection, and its attendant build-up of pressure.
Needless to say, these memories are, for me, hazy. I remember excruciating earaches. I think I remember screaming with pain in the night, although perhaps that’s the drama of hindsight. I remember visiting a doctor, located in slick offices in a street named ‘Help Street’ – even at that young age, my love of language allowed me to see and relish the link – and sitting tests: ‘put a peg in the hole when you hear the beep’. The headphones felt big and clunky to my ears, even then (even before the advent of Walkmans and, later, earpods!) and I remember feeling eager to please, eager to get the ‘right’ answer. I may not have remembered this, were it not for the fact that, years later, I watched my second-born child perform a similar test, when concerns were raised about his hearing and speech development: the look of hopeful compliance, on his sweet, chubby face, swamped by alien (and slightly askew) headphones, broke my heart.
Yet my mother must have experienced something similar: “Every time you had so much as a sniffle, it was accompanied by earache,” she said, when I asked her about it. “I was told that, if left untreated, you might be deaf before the age of 10.”
Might I have been? I can’t be sure - this was in the ‘70’s and, as well as no longer being able to contact my doctor for comment, it’s likely that a prognosis now would be nowhere near as dire as it was then. In any case, I went to hospital for an adenoidectomy and the insertion of grommets; thanks to the resultant sore throat, I had green jelly at just about every meal. My parents visited daily and, unbeknown to me, went home each night and stayed up late to redecorate my bedroom. When I eventually came home, I was greeted by a carnival of florals and toys.
Again, that’s just how I remember it. There was definitely new wallpaper and I was definitely thrilled (although some green jelly wouldn’t have gone amiss!)
Academic and Social Confidence
These things – these precious (even if, perhaps, not entirely reliable) memories - are just one part of what my early aural issues meant, and have come to mean, for me. Gifted with better hearing, I gobbled words, both written and heard, and regurgitated them at every opportunity. I won writing prizes, spoke confidently in class, boasted a precocious vocabulary, studied the languages offered in secondary school and went on to gain a Law degree, revelling in each syllable and expression, relishing how it all formed part of a much larger join-the-dots of communication and human existence.
None of this is to say that addressing early hearing issues is the golden ticket to academic achievement (and, in all honesty, in many subjects, my ‘achievement’ was negligible: just ask my Science and Maths teachers); on the flipside, however, when hearing issues come into play, poor academic achievement cannot simply be attributed to lack of intelligence. As research by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) demonstrates, factors such as background noise, rapid speech and a teacher speaking with their back to the class may all contribute to hinder learning. Additionally, as mentioned above, hearing-impaired children may struggle to grasp subjects based on concepts and ideas, as opposed to those to which tangibles are key.
Naturally enough, recurrent hearing issues in childhood may have an impact, not only on learning, but also on confidence and social development: since communication is key to relationship building, it’s not uncommon for children with impaired hearing to feel isolated, to shy away from social situations and to struggle with interaction. With social maturity thus stunted, peer relationships, as the child advances in age, can also be affected.
Early Intervention and Support
Early intervention can, of course, mitigate many of the problems associated with childhood hearing impairment: I was lucky, being barely of a school age when my issues were identified and dealt with. A man I encountered in my early twenties had lived through a less positive experience: not only were his hearing issues (otosclerosis, a condition where bone overgrowth in the ear prevents the stapes from vibrating in response to sound) hereditary, but his father, despite having had the same condition, often called him ‘stupid’ for his occasional failure to pick up and process information. One can only wonder at the effect this had on his self-esteem.
In fact, a 2015 study showed that early intervention, combined with parental/ carer support and involvement, as well as time spent absorbing language by way of reading, had a profoundly positive effect on academic performance: having bilateral cochlear implants and a positive family environment were predictors of more positive outcomes.
My recurrent childhood earaches made the problems with my aural health easy to identify at a young age; one imagines that a knowledge of hereditary conditions would also trigger alarm bells for a parent or carer. Nevertheless, not all childhood hearing impairment is as readily spotted – so what alarms might adults look out for and be aware of?
Speech and pronunciation difficulties are well-known warning signs but, according to experts, other indications may include:
- a tendency to daydream or drift off,
- difficulty concentrating,
- responding inappropriately to questions,
- trouble following instructions.
It’s easy to see how such behaviours could be misinterpreted as ‘naughtiness’ or lack of ability – so it’s even more important to seek thorough assessment; in this way, if hearing difficulties are at play, support and treatment can be obtained, giving the child the best possible opportunity to achieve what they are capable of, both socially and academically.
Following my operation and subsequent check-ups, my hearing was deemed adequate, and I was never advised to wear aids, nor implants. That said, I still experience certain difficulties around hearing that may probably be traced back to those early issues. Multiple noise streams – for instance, hearing and identifying the source of a siren while the car radio is on, or having a conversation in noisy bar or restaurant – can send my stress levels skyrocketing. When I am shopping in a supermarket, I can do so with less anxiety if I drown out the background noise of announcements (and the general public) by plugging into a podcast, or a Shamanic drumming playlist. I much prefer to read information than to hear it. Rooms with poor acoustics can reduce me to nervous tears. Social situations – including, at times, family life – can leave me very exhausted; even before I reached middle age, it was never unusual for me to skulk off for a nap in the middle of a gathering.
All of these are things that can be dealt with and even, in many circumstances, avoided. The broader issue – that of my ability to hear clearly, to engage in an educational setting, to be attuned to nuance and tone and expression – were aided, immeasurably, by the fact of the support of my parents, teachers and doctors. I can’t say how grateful I am for that.