Foreign Languages and Hearing Loss Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond

by Anna Karkovska McGlew

Across all grade levels, students with hearing loss elect to learn foreign languages in the classroom and beyond and do so successfully. In today’s globalized and more integrated world, being able to speak more than one language is advantageous on many levels. Practically, it expands horizons and provides an opportunity for deeper social and cultural participation. According to an article in the New York Times (“Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” March 17, 2012), multi-/bi-linguism seems also to be associated with improving cognitive skills and the brain’s executive functioning, especially for focused and sustained attention during mentally demanding tasks, and increasing one’s ability to monitor their environment with efficiency and sensitivity. In addition to these broad benefits, at least two years of foreign language classes in high school are becoming a standard requirement for entry into competitive colleges and universities.  

Mariela Goett at Crac de Chevaliers, a Crusader
castle located about 25 miles west of Harns, Syria.
credit: Bashar Abdeen

Considerations for Learning a Foreign Language with Hearing Loss

A positive state of mind can make the greatest difference in how well the student learns a second language, according to Ellen Rhoades, Ed.S., LSLS Cert. AVT. If the student experiences fear, discomfort, anxiety or a negative attitude towards the endeavor of learning a second language, it is important that their concerns be recognized, discussed and allayed.

Jane Madell, Ph.D., CCC-SLP/A, LSLS Cert. AVT, reminds parents that, just like students with typical hearing, some children will have a natural inclination and ability to learn foreign languages while others will have greater difficulty. She advises parents to facilitate a meeting with the foreign language teacher at the beginning of the school year to explain the effects of hearing loss on learning in the classroom and assist the teacher in knowing how to maximize optimal classroom functioning. Open communication between teachers, parents and professionals is instrumental to fostering student success. Parents and professionals need to communicate to teachers of foreign languages that, despite advancements in hearing aids and cochlear implant technology, they do not provide typical hearing to anyone with hearing loss.

Before making a decision to learn a second language in school, there are several key considerations for parents and students. Prior to studying another language, parents should consider the student’s level of communicative competency in their native language, advised Ellen Rhoades. “If the student does not yet have a strong linguistic base, it may be difficult to learn a second spoken language successfully,” she said.  

credit: Rachel Chaikof

Factors related to hearing loss should also be considered, such as the age at which the child received the diagnosis of hearing loss and the subsequent ages of amplification, intervention and development of good listening skills. For some children and adolescents, dual or sequential language learning may not be the most optimal choice, Rhoades noted. Parents should consider the complex learning needs of the student, including whether or not there are additional learning challenges, such as difficulties in the core cognitive capacities of attention and working memory, which can significantly compromise a student’s capacities for learning another spoken language.
When deciding on which foreign language to study, Rhoades cautions parents and students to be aware that while all languages are equally learnable among babies and toddlers, learning tonal languages at a later age may be a bit more difficult for those with limited acoustic accessibility. For example, intonational patterns in most African or South-East Asian languages carry different lexical meanings such as the varied tones of vowels in Chinese. However, adjustments to digital hearing aids or cochlear implant sound processor programs often can be made to improve each student’s access to the suprasegmental speech cues such as tones in a tonal language. “Students who are aware of these issues and are highly motivated to learn a tonal language should not be discouraged from doing so.”

“We know that auditory skill development in both spoken language and music facilitates speech perception,” Rhoades said. “We also know that speakers of tonal languages seem to have better musical pitch perception. So it stands to reason that learning a tonal language, while difficult, might improve both auditory attentional and perceptual skills of children with hearing loss. Indeed, children with typical hearing reportedly improve their critical listening skills as a result of learning a tonal language.”

On the other hand, some foreign languages such as Italian and Spanish, may lend themselves to easier learning because spelling and pronunciation are closely linked, according to Madell. 

ASL as a Second Language Option

Many high schools, colleges and universities now recognize American Sign Language (ASL) as meeting foreign language requirements. If a student struggles with learning a second spoken language, ASL may be an option, as visually based signed languages are neurobiologically and functionally different from auditory-based spoken languages, according to Rhoades.

Additional factors to consider when electing to learn ASL are other family members who are deaf and use ASL and the student’s sense of social inclusion. “When adolescent students are linguistically proficient yet persistently experience social exclusion even after extensive intervention, I may recommend they learn ASL instead of learning a second spoken language; this is because it is important for students to have a sense of belonging,” said Rhoades.

However, both Madell and Rhoades do not recommend learning ASL as a second language for younger students who are still in the process of learning to listen and speak in their primary language if the family has chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for their child.  

Questions and Considerations for Second Language Learning in the Classroom

Ellen Rhoades, Ed.S., LSLS Cert. AVT, lists the following helpful questions for parents to keep in mind when evaluating their child’s acoustic accessibility when learning a second spoken language.
  • Is the student taking advantage of optimal hearing technology?
  • Does the foreign language teacher speak clearly and above soft conversational level?
  • Is acoustic clutter within the classroom minimized?
  • Can the student be seated so that the teacher is no more than 5-6 feet away, especially when not using an assistive listening system?
  • Does the student have access to an effective assistive listening system that consistently works well?
  • Do both student and teacher know how to appropriately manipulate that listening system?
  • If the student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), can classroom accommodations for second language learning be made part of the IEP?  

Tips and Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language

Learning a second language is an adventure of a lifetime. As attested by the students themselves, a positive attitude towards learning was key to their success in the classroom.

Mariela Goett, who has profound hearing loss in both ears, vividly recalls the first day of her college Arabic class in which the instructor refused to speak in English. “It was the most terrifying class I’ve ever had,” she said. “The next day, only 10 of the original 30 students remained in the class and I was among them. It’s not just people who are hard of hearing that get discouraged. Every time I have a difficult class, whether it is a language class or an economics class, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that the most important thing is to learn. When we make mistakes, we are learning.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Teacher for Assistance
Learning to listen in a second language is extremely important as it allows for effective communication, relationship building and a fuller experience. 

Rachel Chaikof, who has profound hearing loss and has studied French since ninth grade, asked her French teacher to evaluate, correct and give feedback on her pronunciation in French. In order to make sure she heard the sounds correctly, Chaikof regularly asked the teacher to repeat words. Vivie Moraiti, who is Greek and studied English as a foreign language, wrote English pronunciations down in Greek letters, which helped her with remembering the words and using them in speaking.

“Always be gracious if someone corrects you and you know they are right. Accept it, repeat it so it sticks, and move on. Don’t get frustrated—frustration gets you nowhere,” said Moraiti, who has profound hearing loss in both ears.

The listening component of learning a foreign language is often a source of apprehension for students with hearing loss. “My biggest advice is to not let your hearing be an excuse to not make an effort on listening components,” Goett said. “I have had so many difficulties with listening exams, and I have always hated them. But I never gave up trying. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

If listening to the audio recordings is challenging, Chaikof suggests asking the instructor if the transcript could be read to you. If this is not possible, you should still try to listen to the audio recordings while reading the transcript to practice your listening skills.

Rachel Dubin visiting the Temple of Zeus in Athens,
credit: Vivie Moraiti

Rachel Dubin, who has profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and has studied foreign languages all her life, arranged with the instructor and the school for individual tutoring from an upperclassman and extra reading, since her hearing loss did not allow her to understand the tapes. If possible, “arrange to have listening comprehension quizzes and tests given to you one-on-one. Meet with the instructor regularly to go over any questions you may have and to touch base with regards to your progress,” she advised.

Study Strategies
“Whatever language you learn, be passionate about it. You must want to learn a particular language or it won’t work. Be prepared to put in the work to learn it— twice the work, if necessary,” said Dubin.
To keep up with the pace of learning new vocabulary and grammar, studying outside of class is really important. If you fall behind, you will struggle to communicate effectively and your reading comprehension will suffer. Chaikof made flash cards to review the vocabulary and practice her pronunciation. She also made her own study guides by creating sentences in English, which she then translated in French. Once she got to a more advanced level, she regularly read online news articles in French to practice her reading skills.

“My strategies were these: read, read, read! Keep studying, but also involve the language in your leisure time. I improved by leaps and bounds by reading books in English and that helped my vocabulary grow, too,” recalled Moraiti.

Cultural Immersion
Learning a foreign language is more than learning new vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation. It also means learning about a new culture and a different way of doing things. Immersing yourself in the culture of the language you are trying to learn is a sure way to learn, have fun and build relationships.

Chaikof participated in a number of French cultural immersion programs over the years, including hosting a French student at her family home in the States when she was still in high school. For most of her college years, Dubin lived on the Russian language floor of her dorm. “I loved the experience of being immersed in Russian 24/7. It made studying a lot easier, too, since I could just go down the hall or next door if I had a homework question,” she said.
Students who have the opportunity and confidence to do so should consider studying abroad. Goett lived in Cairo, Egypt, during her junior year of college, and after graduation, she lived in Damascus, Syria. She formed many lasting friendships and believes that living abroad greatly improved her Arabic. Now, she can identify words in Arabic songs and is getting good at speechreading Arabic.

Moraiti found ways to learn English from native or fluent speakers because she wanted to learn slang, idioms and phrasal verbs that weren’t available in textbooks. “I have a friend—an AG Bell member—who has been a big help in improving and polishing my English,” she said.

Many schools have extracurricular clubs for students learning foreign languages. Cultural institutes and centers, such as the Goethe Institut or the Alliance Francaise, are options that may be available in your community.

Classroom Accommodations
As Chaikof noted, the most ideal classroom accommodation for students with hearing loss who are learning a second language is having a foreign language teacher who is extremely supportive and is willing to understand the challenges of teaching a student with hearing loss.

Moraiti agreed: “My experience has been very positive, because I had a very positive teacher, and one that thought anything was possible.”

Practically, if the student benefits from it, the availability of an assistive listening device, such as an FM or sound field system, will ensure that the student can hear clearly what the teacher and other students are saying. Preferential seating and note takers proved instrumental for Dubin’s progress in Hebrew, Russian and French. In addition, she was able to have the language lab requirement waived in exchange for tutoring from an upperclassman.

Chaikof worked with her French teacher, who read her the transcripts of audio recordings, many of which were on audiocassettes and had background noise which diminished the sound quality. She also met with her teacher after school once a week to review and work on correct pronunciation.

“Teachers can facilitate the learning process by systematically ensuring that letter sounds and word pronunciations are made available in the written form, since this may reinforce the listening process for students,” said Rhoades.

Regardless of whether learning a foreign language in the classroom leads to fluency or not, the process is challenging, rewarding and beneficial. Bi-/multi-linguism enriches the lives and experiences of everyone involved, encourages a student’s curiosity and desire for self-improvement, and enhances their connection and relationship with the world and its people. 

Experiences and Perspectives

Volta Voices connected with students with hearing loss—all of them adults now—who are fluent in a number of languages and who generously shared their experiences, strategies and advice about learning a foreign language in a classroom setting as well as on their own. 

Chaikof.headshotRachel Chaikof, 26, from Boston, Mass. She has profound hearing loss in both ears and wears bilateral cochlear implants. She received her first implant at age 2 and her second one at age 17. She is a fluent speaker of French, which she has studied since ninth grade.

When being faced with the challenge of learning a second language, students should remind themselves about what opportunities it could open to them—traveling to the countries where the second language is spoken, building new friendships, participating in cultural exchange programs, studying abroad and working overseas.

Dubin.headshotRachel Dubin, 36, from Washington, D.C. She has profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, identified at age 3 with all residual hearing lost at age 5. She has bilateral cochlear implants, which she received as an adult in 2001 and 2010. She has studied Hebrew, French, Russian and Serbian and is most fluent in French and Russian.

It’s challenging but rewarding to learn a foreign language. Whichever language you choose to learn, remember you can do it as well as, or better than, your classmates with typical hearing.

Goett.headshotMariela Goett, 26, from the Bay Area, Calif. She has profound hearing loss in both ears. She received a cochlear implant at age 11 and her other ear is unaided. She learned Spanish as a teenager, because she wanted to communicate with her Peruvian cousins. She started learning Arabic when she was 18 years old as a freshman in college and spent her junior year in Cairo, Egypt. After graduation, she lived in Damascus, Syria for a year.

Don’t be afraid of people not making accommodations for you and working with your hearing loss. They will always figure out a way to ‘fit’ you in their lives.
Moraiti.headshotVivie Moraiti, 30, from Greece. She has profound hearing loss in both ears. She wore hearing aids until age 25 when she received a cochlear implant in her left ear. She started learning English as an 8-9 year old and has never stopped improving it. She loves how English connects her with friends all over the world.

Language is what keeps us sharp, and the more we learn, the more we love it. Don’t be discouraged by dissident voices, and just follow your instinct.

Source: Volta Voices (2013), Volume 20, Issue 4