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.
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.
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 benefiting 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.”
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.
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 immersion 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.