Learning a Foreign Language with Hearing Loss: A chi vuole, non mancano modi

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By Kimberly

     I walked into a pharmacy in La Spezia, Italy with torn khakis and a bloody knee, asking for help in my limited Italian vocabulary. The pharmacist smiled and proceeded to explain in slow, clear Italian the antibacterial wipes and creams that she had on hand, showing me the back of the boxes so that I could read the ingredients for myself. She used a hand gesture to indicate where I could pay, and turned the cash register screen toward me to make sure that I understood how much I owed. She did all of these things for me because she knew that I wasn’t fluent in Italian, but ironically, they are the very things that would help me in English as well because I have significant hearing loss.

La Spezia, just before I fell!

     When I decided to teach a two-month study abroad course in Italy, I was expecting to feel the effects of my hearing loss more keenly. Any time that I’d spent in a foreign language class or watching a foreign movie had taught me that guessing what I’ve just heard (something that I have to do every day) is so much harder when I’m not hearing English. Most of the time, my brain automatically fills in words, and much like the autocompletion function on my cell phone, it’s usually a big help but sometimes hilariously wrong. In a less familiar language, I have virtually no autocomplete helping me, and I’m forced to guess far more words—some of which I may know and some of which I may not. I expected to feel especially lost in Italy, but I decided to grin and bear it for the sake of a new and exciting experience (and the food)! What I didn’t count on was that living and working with people who speak Italian isn’t the same thing as trying to watch an Italian movie without captions. People in conversations, especially kind people (which many Italians are), will try to work with you so that you understand. And unlike my hearing loss, which people frequently forget about, my status as a foreigner in need of help was something that people in Italy almost never forgot. Unexpectedly, being an outsider helped me cope with being hard of hearing.

The hiker’s view of Corniglia in Cinque Terre

     I had likewise overestimated the degree to which my hearing loss would make my time taking Italian classes more challenging. I had decided to take the accelerated Italian class with some of my students but harbored some doubts in the beginning about my abilities to keep up. However, being honest with my instructor about my hearing loss from the beginning helped us determine some easy strategies to help me follow along. Whenever a new word was introduced, or even whenever I was having trouble with a sentence, she would write it on the board. As an instructor myself, I knew that all of the students were actually benefitting from this extra step put into place for me. I often find that that’s the case with accommodations for students. Because they reinforce an audio or visual component of the lesson, they typically aid learning for everyone else. I still ran into frustrating moments in class. When my instructor asked me questions and I misheard what she had said, I felt the same sort of panicked feeling that I used to get when I was younger and not yet as accustomed to my hearing loss. I didn’t know where to begin—how to explain what I hadn’t understood, and I found myself frustrated that everything had to be just a little harder for me than it was for everyone else. For some reason, being put on the spot and not hearing in a foreign language brought all of that back to me in a way that I can’t really explain. Still, I’d remember myself and remember that I’ve had so many of those moments in life, so I know how to deal with them. A couple of times, I’d see a student of mine struggling to keep up in an Italian class or conversation, nearly in tears, and I could say, “I know how you feel. It’s frustrating. Give yourself permission not to understand everything! Know when to try and when to take a break.”

The view of Florence from Boboli Gardens.

     I’m not going to pretend like it was always easy. I ran into some real challenges. I had practiced explaining my hearing loss to people before I left. “Sono dura d’orecchi” means, “I’m hard of hearing,” but the first time that I tried to say it, the person who I was talking to snickered and told me, “Don’t say that. Say ‘Ho problemi di udito,’ which means, ‘I have problems hearing.’” When I prodded as to why, I found out that “dura d’orecchi” was the clinical term for being hard of hearing but was also slang for “stupid.” That’s pretty much the most obvious example of audism in action that I can think of. “Audism,” for anyone who doesn’t know, is the belief that people who hear are better or smarter than people who don’t hear or have some hearing loss. It doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out how the word for “hard of hearing” came to mean “stupid,” just like Americans will sometimes use “retarded” that way. Trying to figure out what I was going to call myself made me confront all of those foolish assumptions about hearing loss that used to make me ashamed, especially when I was a kid. I was actually afraid to let most people in Italy know that I had hearing loss, just because you never know how someone is going to react, and I wasn’t sure what their cultural attitudes were toward it. The more comfortable I got, though, the more I realized that people would understand. As long as you approach people with specific requests, like, “I don’t hear well. Can I stand near you while you give the tour?” they will help and be nice about it. Just like in the States, learning concise ways to explain what you need goes a long way.

     Learning how to ask for what I wanted was always a challenge. I’d ask an Italian coworker, “What’s the word for ______ in Italian?” and the answer would, of course, be incomprehensible to me! I learned to carry paper with me and ask, “Can you write that down?” Likewise, when I’d ask a waiter to repeat something, or when my husband would repeat it for me, the waiter would almost always switch to English, which was frustrating, since I wanted to learn the language. Simply explaining that I was hard of hearing first usually really helped, and when it didn’t, I just went with the flow. You can’t win every battle.

The downtown nightlife in Genova.

     I had learned to let myself lose now and then when brushing up my language on Duolingo—a free language app that “gamifies” the study of foreign language. Rather than turn off the listening option, which would give me no practice listening, I simply tried listening and failed repeatedly! Yes, my scores suffered, and yes, it took me far longer than my husband to work my way through the lessons, but I was trying. I have to give myself permission to be pretty bad at languages! Even if other people never understand why it’s harder for me, I understand, and I cut myself a break. When I was taking the formal Italian class, I asked for transcripts of oral exercises. One of my classmates, of course, griped that I “had it easier” on exams because of this accommodation—completely oblivious to the extra challenges that make this one “advantage” so necessary. Again, I could brush it off. When you’re hard of hearing, you have to either give yourself permission to fall behind or give yourself permission to ask for help, knowing that there will be frustrating consequences either way and that it’s important to pick your battles.

     I think that humility is a skill that anyone has to hone while learning a new language. Because of my hearing loss, I’m used to not knowing what’s being said. A lot of people aren’t! So maybe my abilities to learn a new language aren’t going to be as sharp as a hearing person’s, but my attitude can still give me the edge. I’m a different learner, not a worse one. Learning a new language, especially through an emersion experience, is disorienting and tiring. For those of us who have the extra challenge of hearing loss, it can sometimes feel impossible. Yet, we have our own superpowers—our ways of dealing with confusion and exhaustion that we have honed over the years. Living in Italy reminded me that I’m far from helpless, and that there are always a few people out there willing to make the extra effort to communicate when it really counts.

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Traveling, Accents & Hearing Loss

by Chelle Wyatt

My husband and I took a belated honeymoon/anniversary trip to Costa Rica a few weeks ago.  I decided to go minimal knowing we’d be moving to a different part of the country every few days.  I left my usual purse at home, using a super small, flat purse to carry only a few essentials.  Knowing it was going to rain every day and be super humid, I decided to leave my hearing aids at home.

I know some of you out there are gasping at the thought of leaving hearing aids behind.  Hearing aids are just too expensive to lose and I didn’t want to chance it.  I’m fairly comfortable not wearing hearing aids here at home but I’ll admit, I was a little worried about how I’d hear English with accents there.  Lucky for me I was going with a hearing person. Still I didn’t want to lean on him too much, I was sure I’d find ways to communicate as needed.

Our first driver spoke very little English.  I was super tired after flying all night in a tin can, packed tightly together.  Airline seats don’t go back far enough to sleep without pecking corn (my heading falling forward over and over again as I tried to sleep).  When I’m that tired, I can’t hear at home either so I only knew our driver was talking but understood very little of what he said.  Ken said he couldn’t really understand him either.  I fell asleep in the van which was more comfortable than the plane believe it or not.  We stopped for a picture at one point and when I had a hard time understanding him, he resorted to gesturing.  Perfect!  Gesturing is universal.

We went to a restaurant and the menu was in both Spanish and English. I thought I’d try the Spanish words since I was in their country.  “I’ll get the hamburguesa atun.”  He looked down at me and said, “You want the tuna sandwich.”  I almost laughed out loud.  I think he meant “Don’t massacre my language.”  I didn’t try ordering in Spanish again sticking to English.

We stayed in three different towns in different parts of the country.  We stayed in Manuel Antonio the first few nights which mostly resting up from our plane ride over.  Then went to la Fortuna the next couple of nights where three activities were planned; the hot springs at Tabacon, a trip to the Arenal volcano and the Fortuna waterfall.  We had an English-speaking guide for the volcano and waterfall, he was very good about facing me.  He was a biology student so he and Ken got along well, he even convinced Ken to eat a few termites…no I didn’t even try.  Ken said it was ‘woodsy flavored.’

Over the course of the trip I realized the same rules apply abroad as they do in the states.

  1. If having a hard time, I told them I couldn’t hear well.
  2. I told them I use lipreading.
  3. If I could relax, I could hear/lipread them, especially after spending more time with them.

My favorite hard of hearing moment  of the trip was while we were Tamarindo and went out on a catamaran for snorkeling.  I’m not one to jump in the ocean so I stayed on the boat while the others splashed around.  I was happy with mojitos, the view, the sun at least and getting to know some of the crew who were super accommodating. I was sitting at the back of the boat relaxing and one of crew members sat down next to me.  He said, “I know you don’t hear well and that you are learning my lips…”

And I thought perfect, yes!  I’m always learning people’s lips.  I’m learning their lips, the words they use, their facial expressions and their accents.  I was certainly learning his lips.  To continue…

“…and you’re learning my lips but I don’t know how you understand me so well.”

Well… I grew up near the Mexican border in California so maybe Spanish accents are a little easier than I thought they would be?  That’s what I told him but after more thinking maybe it’s a combination of things.  Maybe I spent enough time with him?  Or was it that he made sure he faced me?  Maybe some people are easier to lip read accent or no accent no matter what.

I had a grand time and I would not hesitate traveling in other countries.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Travel forth my hearing loss friends!

My friend on the boat.
Melwin at the pool who I could also undestand fairly well.
My husband, Ken, and the volcano guide who spoke very good English.

Air Travel with Your Hearing Loss

by Rosie Greer, Flight Attendant and SWC Member

I travel for a living. Every working day, I experience the wonders of air travel.   Air travel with hearing loss is complicated. I know first-hand that travel arrangements don’t always go smoothly.

For passengers who do not hear well, airline travel is a challenge. You’re the last to know when gate changes, delays, and cancellations announced! Perhaps there are visual indicators, video monitors that indicate schedule changes, and you eventually see the updates and catch on.

Passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing often do not realize they are entitled to certain assistance and benefits.

Here’s how to get the most out of your airline experience.


Booking Your Flights

I advise that you identify yourself as “deaf” when you purchase your tickets online, by telephone, or through your travel agent. You’ll be asked about special services online.  Select from a list the services that you require.  Your “deaf” declaration alerts the airline that you may require special assistance.  Your name and your special needs are noted on the passenger manifest. The gate agents and flight attendants are informed in advance that you will be on board.

If you have already booked airline tickets, but did not include disability information, it is possible to update your reservation online, by telephone, or ask the travel agent who booked your ticket to do it for you.

Deciding whether to “code’ yourself

Although a wise idea to “code” yourself, doing so is a personal decision. Some people do not wish to call attention to their disabilities and believe they can get along without assistance. Sometimes, hearing companions keep you informed. Phone apps from your airline can keep you updated. Also, if your hearing loss is not severe, you simply may not want or need to identify your hearing impairment.

If you listed yourself as “deaf,” follow-up with a phone call to the airline to request disability seating, if you desire. Disability seats provides convenient boarding for the passenger, and easy access to a forward aircraft boarding door. Disability seating is located in the row or rows right after first class on many airplanes, unless that row also happens to be an emergency exit row. It is a reasonable accommodation for passengers with hearing disabilities to sit close to the front of the aircraft. You need to see the flight attendants making announcements in order to lip read. You require assurance that the flight attendant can access you quickly when he or she has important information or in the event of an emergency.

Disability seating

However, not all disability seats are great. It depends on the aircraft and the seat arrangements. On some planes, if you are seated at a bulkhead, you might not have storage room under the seat in front of you. Some bulkhead disability seats have stationary armrests. Such seats might constrict larger people.

If interested in sitting close to the front of the aircraft, put in a request for the mandatory disability seats. There’s no need for discussion, no need to plead a case. Simply state, “I require disability seating.”

Your seating request could be denied, however, if other disabled passengers are already in those seats. If the company has already sold the more desirable seats to other people, the airline might will offer an aisle seat elsewhere on the plane.   Aisle seats make it easier for the flight attendant to access you.

Some airlines do not mention disability seating for deaf people on their websites, perhaps hoping to keep those seats open for passengers with walking handicaps. Bear in mind, disability seats are intended for all disability groups.

Don’t pay extra fees for disability seating

A current business trend, a new stream of income for many airlines, is to charge an additional fee for the seats that were once dedicated disability seats. Airlines put nicer slipcovers over the chairs, and rearranged the rows to provide more legroom.  Frequent flyers get these preferred seats for free. Other passengers pay a hefty surcharge in order to sit in them. However, at least one row of those upgraded economy seats is still a mandatory disability area. Should you be assigned an “economy comfort” or “comfort plus” seat based on your request for a disability seat, remember this: you do not have to pay the premium fee that someone else must pay to sit there.



When you get to the gate, go directly to the gate agent and identify yourself. Ask him or her to approach you when pre-boarding begins.

At some airlines, pre-boarding is first, before all other passengers. At other airlines, pre-boarding happens after first-class boarding. One of the advantages of pre-boarding is you can find space for your carry-on luggage! Many airplanes in the US domestic market do not have enough storage room for every passenger’s luggage.

Note: Many of the smaller “airlink” planes require everyone to “gate check” all their carry-on bags except for purses and computer cases, and other small articles. On such flights, the articles are also returned to the jetbridge after landing.

The main reason for pre-boarding is to allow a flight attendant to provide you with an individual safety briefing before other passengers charge into the plane.


Safety Briefing

A flight attendant is required to come to your seat to familiarize you with the layout of the aircraft, and basic safety procedures. The flight attendant must also ask how he or she can assist you during flight.

Common requests and communication from hard of hearing or deaf passengers include:

  • Tell me when safety announcements are made.
  • Tell me if our plane is going to be late.
  • Let me know about turbulence forecasts.
  • Can someone accompany me to my next gate?
  • I communicate in writing. I lip read.
  • Please write down important information and bring it to me. If an important announcement is made, please bring it to me in writing.

Some deaf people wave me away when I attempt to provide an individual safety briefing.  “I travel all the time,and I don’t need any special attention.” Quickly, I point out the locations of the two closest sets of exits, the flight attendant call lights, and the lavatories. Then, I mention to don an oxygen mask right away in the event of decompression. (I have never been on one yet!)

Safety demonstrations and booklets

If you are on a plane that is video equipped, the safety demonstrations (seat belts, oxygen masks, smoking prohibition, etc.) are captioned.

Generally, airlines also have their safety demonstrations in written form. Puzzlingly, the written form is sometimes a Braille booklet. Deaf people feel surprised, if not shocked, when handed a Braille card! I hope flight attendants do not assume deaf and hard of hearing people have all been taught Braille!  Written words, found typed around the Braille language, enables you to read up on emergency procedures and safety features of the aircraft. Other airlines have separate informational booklets about your airplane that a flight attendant will offer you.


In Flight

Nowadays many non-safety announcements happen in the air. Airlines promote credit cards, the Skymall® shopping catalog, and featured merchants accessed through the on board wifi Internet system. There is no need for the flight attendants to convey this marketing information to you.

However, as arranged in your individual briefing, a flight attendant will tell you during flight when it is safe to use electronic devices, and when you need to turn them off.  They inform you of predicted turbulence, delays, and other irregular operations. They sometimes get connecting gate information for you. But if they do, be aware that gates sometimes change at the last minute, especially at major airports.


General Advice

If you are connecting through a major airport such as Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas, make sure that you have enough time to make your connecting flight. Just because a flight is offered online doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make the connecting flight. There is a trend to offer flights with a half-hour connection time in huge airports. Under ideal circumstances, that short connection may work. If your flight is even a little bit late, it will not. Airlines recommend minimum connections on their websites, but the connection advice is not always easy to find. Do not ever book a flight where the connection is less than the suggested minimum connection time.

Your carry-on bag

If you pre-board your flight, you will likely have room for your carry-on baggage. Because most airlines charge extra to check luggage, with Southwest Airlines still the exception, passengers bring more luggage than ever on board. When the flight is two-thirds full, many planes in the domestic market run out of overhead bin space. Some passengers end up checking their carry-on bags at the gate unexpectedly.

Always bring your keys, medicines, and necessary medical articles in a purse or tiny carry-on that fits under your seat. If required to check a larger carry-on because there’s no room for it on the airplane, remove your medicines, medical devices, hearing aid related items, computer, and keys. Checked bags rarely get lost. However, lengthy and unexpected mechanical or weather-related delays require that you have your medicines and medical equipment handy. In the unlikely event that a checked bag goes missing after your journey, you’ll be glad to have your keys to start your car and open your house.


The Air Trip

In short, at each point of contact in the airports and on the plane, convey your special hearing-related needs directly to an employee. At the ticket counter, at the gate, on board the aircraft, at baggage claim, etc.  It’s a great idea to wear those buttons that say, “Please get my attention. I’m hard of hearing.” Let everyone know!

By the way: if you declare yourself as “deaf”, you may not sit in an emergency exit row. Keep in mind that emergency exit seating is not about the legroom, though that’s a bonus. You are expected to help in an evacuation, hold the slides until the last person exits a damaged or burning airplane, etc. You must be able to hear commands from a flight attendant and rapidly convey those commands to other people, while responding to passengers and flight attendants in a likely noisy and chaotic environment. Most hard of hearing people I know have zero interest in sitting in an exit row, but for those who like the legroom, you now know that you now have other even better options!

Have a nice flight!

Rosie Geer is a flight attendant for a major airline. She has shared insights based only on her personal experiences and research. Policies may differ depending on the airline.