Learning Languages with Hearing Loss

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

We all know how hard it can be when you’re speaking with someone whose accent is different from your own. It’s worse when you have a hearing loss. I’d bet that at least most of us have had such an experience. So just imagine how much more difficult it might be to get along in an entirely different language – one you don’t speak at all.

When I planned to visit my son in Guatemala I knew I wasn’t going to understand a word of Spanish, much less speak it. Such a negative attitude!

Fortunately, I met with my bi-monthly discussion group about a month before the Guatemala trip. The topic was “What do you consider impossible to accomplish in your life?” I immediately blurted out “learning a foreign language!” Spanish was very much on my mind since I wondered how I was going to manage in Guatemala.

My discussion group is sensitive to my hearing loss, but they didn’t accept my negativity. I had always shown I could hear them, or at least follow the conversation pretty well. They believed I could learn another language, and thought Spanish would be relatively easy. After all, Spanish is now the second most-widely used language in the US, and there are plenty of street signs, menus, TV and news programs where Spanish phrases and English/Spanish translations are common. Plus we use the same alphabet, except for a few accent marks, and share many words. Tacos, anyone?

When I got to Guatemala I was surprised at how many words I recognized both written and spoken. My son even encouraged me to take Spanish lessons, which would help me make sense out of the written language. But would I understand what people were saying?

I was only in Guatemala about ten days and must admit that I did not get up the courage to speak any Spanish. But I now admit that with practice and focus, I could do it. It’s become a possibility, not an Impossibility.

This experience has me wondering what happens to people with hearing loss when they re-locate to another country. How do they learn a new language? Of course success will depend on several factors, including their age (children learn new languages faster) and the severity of their loss. And no doubt it’s easier if the new language is familiar, sharing common roots and alphabet. For English speakers, Spanish and other Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese), and German tend to be easier to learn than Russian, Chinese, Greek or Hindi, which share few common words and use different alphabets. What happens then?

What about you? What have your experiences been travelling to other countries or learning other languages?


We’re planning an  ON-LINE pilot of the successful workshop that I did in January called  “Coming to Grips with Your Hearing Loss; How to Achieve Your Best Hearing Experience”. You can see a short video from the workshop here.

This workshop will be available to anyone with a computer, access to wifi and a basic understanding of how to navigate their computer …. your location doesn’t matter.

You will not have to strain to listen as it will all done written – like a group instant messaging.  This will be a “shake-down cruise” as an on-line workshop is new for us all.

If you’re interested in participating for free as a guinea pig, please let me know right away by clicking here. It will be held on four consecutive Tuesdays from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. eastern standard time, March 20, March 27, April 3 and April 10th.


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Posted in Advocate, Blog.

COMMENTS (click each section to view all comments)


  1. Great article, Pat…chalk up another misconception proved wrong…Sure, we HOH can learn another language, tho our pronunciation may not be perfect, but then I doubt that those with no hearing problems would be much better. I’ve never been in the position of having to use a language other than English, but I have tried a few words of the language spoken wherever I am, and the natives always smile and seem to enjoy the effort. We can do most anything if we set our minds and hearts on doing so…

    • I love what you say that people seem to love it when you try to speak their language. You’re trying – what more can anyone want! Thanks.

  2. As you know, I tried to learn Hebrew, since moving to Israel, six months ago.

    I survived level 1.

    But, in level 2, they went too fast for me to keep up. The longer sentences …longer strings of words, just gave me a headache.

    And, I am a linguist..learned Spanish (took 5 years of it and placed into college honors level 5 !

    But, the hearing loss affected my acuity, discrimination and processing time.

    The only way that I can learn Hebrew, is with an expensive, private tutor.

    I don’t know if I will do that.

    Maybe when I get to chill out more. I’m still overwhelmed from the transition from USA to this bizarre place.

    • You’ve been through a lot Ronnie. One thing at a time. When you’re ready I bet you’ll find a way to learn Hebrew. You don’t let anything stop you.

  3. Pat,
    Nice! I attempted to learn Italian years ago. This was prior to wearing hearing aids but after my hearing began to decrease. I stopped after 6 weeks. While traveling in different countries I will often ask a hearing friend or family member to clarify what language the stranger is speaking. When coupled with a strong accent and English as their second language I’m lost on occasion. Not lost enough to stop traveling though!!

    • Oh I get not being able to identify the language spoken – that can be so frustrating but glad it hasn’t stopped you from traveling. You’re awesome!

  4. Hi Pat & Ronnie, too,
    Here are some of my thought on learning to speak and understand another language. I do not know if this is exactly what you were looking for. This is how I feel about my experiences being in a country with people all around me speaking a language I did not understand. Fortunately most Israeli’s know English. Children & teens study it in school. Adults used it in school, college, and work environments. They use it when they travel, because few people in other places understand Hebrew.

    When I was in college I studied for a year at the Tel Aviv University. We had classes in beginning Hebrew for both semesters, plus the summer when we arrived. In the summer we were in an “Ulpan”, which is an organized course for learning Hebrew. We were all non-Hebrew speakers, but we were from all different countries. The teachers spoke only in Hebrew, because there was no one language they could use to be understood. I met people from all over the world. I did not having a hearing loss at that time, but learning and communicating in another language was very difficult for me. I could not always hear the difference in similar words or in past, present, & future tenses. Maybe I did have the beginning of a hearing loss. It was difficult for me to even immediately repeat something back.

    I already knew the Hebrew alphabet, but found reading real words difficult. Because Hebrew vocabulary is built upon the root of the words, I could usually figure out an approximate understanding of signs and headlines, but no detail or depth. During every school vacation my friend & I traveled to Europe. It was fairly close and inexpensive for students. My friend spoke and understood german & French, so I didn’t need to try. Besides many people spoke English.

    Back in Israel I could speak simple Hebrew to converse with people I met, and could go to the supermarket, bank, & postoffice; ride the buses & trains; ask & understand directions. That was then. Move forward 40 years to now after using my Hebrew very little. When we were just in Israel my Hebrew was extremely minimal. I could read street signs, some posters on buses, and signs on stores. But understanding people when they spoke fast and in high pitched voices, I could pick out a few words; but not understand very much. I explained menu items and signs to Stephen, which impressed my Israeli cousin. He said he would have to watch what he said in front of me.

    If I thought learning another language was difficult when I was younger, now it is really impossible. I can only learn & remember things, if I see them written. I cannot always distinguish the letters & words when spoken. There are many different accidents in Hebrew, depending on what language they spoke previously. Back home learning other languages is something I do not even try. We have a friend Regina. Stephen keeps telling me I do not pronounce it properly. The “G” is not said like any “g’ sound I know and I cannot hear that I am saying it wrong. Many foreign sounds are like that for me. Stephen looks the other way when I order a foreign menu item in a restaurant.

    I cannot fully understand how deaf people learn to speak without being able to hear. When I was younger I could hear, but not the minute differences in specific sounds and words. In some cases I could learn to read, better than learning to speak. I will always be a very visual learning.

    • Thanks Lynne for taking the time to write your experiences. Although many things that you said rang a bell, for me the one thing that stuck out is that often I think I’m repeating a word correctly but often I’m not as I’m not hearing it correctly. That can be very discouraging and frustrating.

  5. I’ve traveled a lot internationally–remember, I’m completely a lipreader–and it’s been my experience that I have more trouble in English-speaking foreign countries than in those that speak a language other than English. In the UK and Ireland the accents were thick and not readable on the lips for me. However, the people I talked to probably think that because I spoke English I should understand English, so they didn’t really go to any extra measure to make themselves understood to me.

    On the other hand, when I was in a county where French, Flemish, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. was spoken, it was clear that I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak mine, so more emphasis was placed on visual communication and they did more to make themselves understood. I’ve always found this to be very interesting.

    However, I’m not intimidated by when I don’t share a language with someone and I would never limit my travel because of my hearing loss. I even lived in Germany for 4 years. I really did intend to learn German, but it took me so long to find an arrangements where I actually could learn–one-on-one with someone who had experience in speech therapy–I would have had to stay in Germany without any breaks in order to put the time in to learn. I couldn’t have gone that long without visiting my very young granddaughter in the U.S., and I was much more interested in traveling to as many places as I could, while in Europe, rather than learn German. So it was a decision on my part not to invest all my time in learning German. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t do both.

    • Thanks Michele. Your experience is so interesting — that is use visual communications. But I think more important is your attitude and that is you don’t let your hearing loss stop you. Love it. Thank you.

  6. Hi Pat,

    I apologize, I didn’t want my comment to be very, very long, but I did want to add that I researched learning a language while deaf before moving to Germany and it’s highly possible. It’s also possible to lipread in other languages. If you’re interested, I’ll dig up my research and the book I bought that was recommended. Private message me on Facebook or via email. ~Michele Thomas Linder

  7. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school, learned basic German while living in Germany, and took a 6 month intensive course leading to a diploma in French.

    Of course, I can read and write much better than speak and listen due to my hearing loss. I have mild to severe loss (low to high tones).

    What I found amazing while learning French, is that I tapped into my lip-reading skill in English and learned to lip-read the French language as I was learning it.

    Yet it wasn’t until I passed the 15th month living in Paris immersed in the language that I could hear conversations on the street by people passing by.

    It’s a lot of work, and it does take patience, persistence, and immersion truly helps.

    • Thanks Cathy. Yes, I agree that it is amazing that you tapped into your lip-reading skills. I give you so much credit for the work you put into learning different languages. Yes, it must have taken as you say patience, persistence and immersion.

  8. I was asked if, with my hearing loss, did I had difficulty learning foreign languages while working overseas in different countries. The answer is , “Yes,” of course. But, I worked closely with my counterparts who already knew some English so eventually I managed to become somewhat proficient. Well, at least proficient enough that I could go shopping in the local community and get by quite well.

    Oh, and where did I work? Two years in Cairo, Egypt.. two years in Maracay, Venezuela, five years in Japan and while in the US Air force, a year in Thailand and a year in Vietnam. This was while I was younger and my hearing loss was at the “Severe” stage. I eventually stopped accepting these assignments when my hearing loss became profound.

    Today I have two cochlear implants and wear two of the newly approved “Kanso” processors. Now at 75 years of age I am content to just enjoy retirement and work with those who have hearing loss. In recent years I have become proficient at installing hearing loops, mostly in peoples homes so they can enjoy watching TV.

    • Awesome Lou. You’ve lived all over the world. I give you credit for learning enough of the foreign language to get around with your then severe hearing loss. Congratulations on getting your 2nd CI and Cheers to the most amazing loop installer I know!

  9. HI Michele, et al,

    I’ve spoken to many people (older, like me) who have no hearing loss. They say that learning Hebrew is just too much. They can’t keep up with the rate at which people speak. They run their words together…all I perceive is mumbling.
    I’m focusing on just trying to relax, after finally retiring, from an exhausting career (speech pathologist – worked with violent, Autistic kids). I’m just not going to stress over learning Hebrew. When I need help, I ask for help. It’s really exhausting, going to supermarkets, where labels are only in Hebrew. I cannot read the ingredients. I snap a photo with my iphone and copy and paste the picture into Google translate. Sometimes it works; mostly, it doesn’t work. I’m not sure if I will continue to live here, in this strange country. I really thought that more people would speak English and that Israelis would help me, if I could not understand them. I was mistaken. And the world spins round and round.

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