Learning sound language – getting the most out of your CI

Welcome to the first in this new series which I’m putting on a separate page, to share things I’ve found helpful in ‘learning sound language’, as a friend said when she sent me a good luck card after switch-on. I’m looking forward to reviewing topics such as music, the phone, hearing in noise and using real life situations as practice. Some of these things are still a work in progress for me, a year post-activation, as I was completely deaf with no useful hearing for over 30 years: some things I remember from when I had some (impaired) hearing in the first 11 years of my life, others I had to learn completely from scratch. Of course, there is still more to learn and discover, and make up for lost time!

Just remember – there is no deadline. Everyone is different: hearing history, age and make of implant, physiology, response at switch-on, language background, from oral to sign to bilingual. You may do better at some sounds than others – speech, environmental noise, music, or have more or less input from your hospital than other CI users. Some people end up no longer using communication support; others don’t. The aim of the CI is not to make you a hearing person, but to make your life easier in the hearing world.

Go at your own pace and do what’s right for you – work at it though, and don’t be afraid to try new things which would have seemed impossible pre-implant. You *can* do it. Remember – hearing people find it difficult too. You might not think so, but they do! I can repeat without difficulty information I lipread, but though I can still physically understand every word heard without looking I can struggle to process it enough to repeat it back – I’m taking up too much brainpower hearing it to actually retain much of it! It’s improving with practice, as my brain focuses less on the mechanics of comprehension in a new form, and more on the content.

Hearing people also have content processing difficulties, but they find coping strategies: my father has to write down phone numbers quickly, for he can’t hold them in his head very long. Take heart if you find the phone difficult, because some hearing folks do too: being unable to see the speaker impacts on being able to take in what’s being said. The old joke that people need their glasses on to hear better on the phone has some truth in it!

Similarly music may be an area that you find more difficult, or different from how you remember it, with your CI. But some hearing people just aren’t musical. They may enjoy listening to music but be tone deaf or unable to play an instrument. My own family isn’t noted for its musicality (and one thing that really annoys me makes me chuckle now is my father’s tuneless whistling). However, you can improve on and get enjoyment and comprehension out of everything you hear, a process which goes on for years as the brain continues to adapt.

The one common factor in success with the implant is practice, perseverance, and patience (that’s three things!). Some people add prayer to the list. Inevitably some CIs fail through either internal malfunction or through an infection requiring explantation – rare, but it does happen. Most CIs today are success stories for their users, though, and, other things being equal, there’s a lot we can do to help ourselves. We have to put the work in to get optimum results.

It’s artificial hearing and we have to learn to hear through electrodes in our ears rather than the little hairs (cilia) that pick up sound in the normally-functioning ear. If you’ve never had normal hearing, it’s a whole new ball game. If you have, you’re learning to hear again a different way. With long-term deafness, you’ve probably picked up lipreading skills and other coping mechanisms. Just like skills in the workplace, these are ‘transferable skills’ you can use to anchor yourself in your new hearing world. To use a language analogy, if you’ve already learnt one language, you find it easier to learn another, because you’ve actually picked up a third language in doing so – the language of grammar. You can identify verbs and nouns, and see how it all fits together, and similar words across related languages. Anyone who’s ever learnt Latin, has transferable vocabulary skills for the ‘descendants’ of Latin: the ‘Romance’ languages of French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and if you can remember Latin’s 6 noun cases x 3 genders x singular and plural, and 144 different permutations of verb endings, you’ve got a head start in unrelated languages with a similar structure, such as German and Russian. Although anyone who has ever tried to learn the 15 cases of Finnish has my sympathy (and two more in literary use) . . . If you know both its sisters, English and German, Dutch isn’t at all difficult to read for either me or my English-speaking German friend. And because I’m familiar with 17th/18th-century English, I find it easier to read and translate 17th/18th-century Dutch, which is part of what I do for a living: I know which phrases to reach for.

How can you transfer lipreading skills to listening, then? At first it may be difficult to do, especially if lipreading has been lifelong for you as it has been for me. Lipreading and listening are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though. Use your lipreading skills to identify the sounds associated with those lip patterns, the better to understand them when you are actively using listening skills alone. That’s one transferable skill: but the ‘soft skill’ of being able to put effort into deciphering lips can also be transferred into working at sound, in the same way as the arts of grammar help you learn one language after another.

I used to identify sounds through vibration, through touch or through my whole body, feeling the rumble of a lorry long before I saw it, for example. Early in my hearing career I could identify the sound of train brakes squealing because I could simultaneously feel it through my feet. One thing that astonished me with music was how much more there was to it than the beat, all I had felt for so long. I found it amazing that I could feel one thing – and hear something completely different : at first it almost seemed like two different pieces of music. Just feeling the beat along with listening, or watching performance videos to see the camera zooming in on particular instruments, helped me to make sense of the whole. The language of sound you see and feel can be transferred into the language of sound you hear.

Sound may not be your ‘native language’ or it may be one that you haven’t spoken for years, much like Marco Polo, who had all but forgotten Italian when he returned from China, and I felt like him, really, at first: little bits kept coming back here and there, but I am relearning what was my native language. The way I’m looking at these pages is to condense everything I’ve learnt *so far* into a journey akin to a Teach Yourself Sound Language manual!

Using Real Life to Check Progress I: Annual Progress markers other than audiological visits


Course in Hearing Language Part I: Building real-world skills into your routine


Course in Hearing Language Part II: suggestions for helpful TV programmes


Course in Hearing Language Part III: Further Cross-Training – a look at what you can get out of a religious service



4 thoughts on “Learning sound language – getting the most out of your CI”

  1. Thanks for that insight. I too am having problems where I am concentrating so hard on catching the words that I do not have the mental powers left to process those words and make a decision. Allied to that is the fact that being stressed up also make the brain go numb. I know from situations where I have another listener with normal hearing that I have missed out on some crucial information. It simply got lost either not heard in the first place or simply unprocessed.

    Well, in a couple of weeks I get my switch-on and can only hope that I do make better use of any incoming information.

    • Hello Ian,

      It’s amazing how much space processing “information received” takes up in the head. I know how much I used to miss, as I would think I had got most or all of what had been said during a medical appointment, for example. Then, if the Bear came with me, he’d fill in quite a lot of gaps – missed or unprocessed – and it would seem that we had been at completely different appointments as he’d got so much more out of it. It always shocked me as I have always been a good lipreader! As you say, stress has a lot to do with it too, particularly in medical situations.

      I find it so empowering to be able to fill in gaps for myself now, rather than relying on another pair of ears or having edited versions by communication support workers.

      I’m getting better at processing content heard rather than lipread as my brain has taken to hearing quite well, and now I know what I’m doing it is more ‘second nature’ rather than a novel operating system requiring a lot of memory, if that makes sense!

      All the best for your switch-on, Ian, and I will update this section of the blog soon with more hints and tips! You will definitely fill in those gaps and feel more informed with far less effort, and it will make work so much easier!

  2. Thanks. Is it because lipreading takes so much effort I wonder? I know that hearing folk have no idea at all about the issues. Even though my work email sig has a message about Talk by text connection I am asked to phone up! When i do they wish I hadn’t. LOL

  3. I don’t even have a phone number in my e-mail signature – it’s e-mail or nothing!! I have been extremely fortunate to have very good colleagues, all of whom have been very accommodating, but because I work in a slightly unusual field I think they have been more willing to be flexible than many – they’re used to thinking outside the box, if you like.

    (To be fair, I can talk on the phone with family, but it’s not a boundary I’m pushing at work just yet. I can compose an e-mail faster than I can talk . . . )

    Yes, lipreading takes so much effort, doesn’t it? It was one of the things that pushed me towards having a CI – the realisation that even for me as a lifelong lipreader it was taking more and more out of me to get the same result.

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