Vera Brearey: What is ‘hearing’ like when you are deaf? Here’s how I hear

Posted on September 29, 2016



It is hard to explain to someone who can hear normally what “hearing” can be like for someone with hearing loss. Back when my hearing was better than it is now I could just hear – without thinking about it. Sound waves reached the ear, did whatever it is they do in there, got to the brain and, hey presto, I heard.

Sometimes I can still hear like that. If I’m sitting in a quiet place, talking with one other person who is facing me, I’m not aware of trying to hear – I can just do it. At other times I really have to concentrate. So, for example, if I go into a room where three or four people are talking I can hear the sounds of speech, but I can’t immediately make any sense of it. If I decide to try (sometimes I just assume it’s none of my business) I need to start concentrating, get myself into a position where I can see the face of at least one of the speakers, and hope to pick up the thread. Once I know roughly what they are talking about it becomes easier (context is everything in lip reading).

What is happening in my brain is a lot of mulling over of the sounds that reach me until I can make sense of them. (Adding lip reading into the equation is a huge help). Sometimes this is unconscious, but at other times it almost feels like a conscious process. The brain whirs through alternative meanings so slowly I can almost feel it happening. It feels like I am telling my brain “no, no, she can’t be saying that, it must be something else – try again.” (Of course, by this time, in a normal conversation the other person has raced on to something else, which is why it can be easier to understand a small snatch of speech than a longer burst – in a longer burst I can still be working out the first bit and miss what comes next……)

Because it sometimes takes me time to figure things out I know I sometimes pause before I answer someone. (I’m still working on the translation). Mind you, sometimes people pause when they are speaking for any number of reasons so it can be hard for people to work out if I’m pausing because I haven’t heard or pausing because I’m pondering. Sometimes I have to interrupt people repeating themselves by saying “sorry, I heard you, I’m just thinking about what you said.”

It occurred to me the other day that I approach spoken English now like translating a foreign language. I was remembering being an au pair in France, one summer holiday in the early 70s. My ability to read and write French was quite good (that’s what ‘O’ levels taught you back in the distant past) but I knew I couldn’t speak the language very well (because school didn’t seem to think that was very important). Hence the au pair job.

I arrived with the family confident I’d manage fine, after all, I had a very good vocabulary. But – whoah! – fitting what they said to the words that I knew was another ball game altogether, requiring a lot of thought and concentration and struggle – just like now!

Or, in more recent years, you go on holiday to Spain or somewhere and try to at least learn enough to cope with ordering food in a café. You buy the phrase book, rehearse a few easy phrases, look up what the waiter might say in return – easy peasy. But it isn’t. The waiter says “something” and you think “what?” and it doesn’t match the options you’ve seen written down AT ALL. That’s exactly what “hearing” is like for me now. I’m fluent in English (reading, writing and speaking). It’s my mother tongue. But I can’t match the sounds I “hear” to the language I know so well.

New to blogging, Vera started in February.  In it she talks about her life with hearing loss – first diagnosed in her early 20s and deteriorating steadily since.  Early 60s.  Retired.  Lives in a village in Yorkshire with husband, dog and cat.  Resolutely ploughing on, trying to see the funny side.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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Posted in: Vera Brearey