How Children With Cochlear Implants Learn Words

For many children born deaf, a cochlear implant can be a miracle. Toddlers can typically have the device implanted 12 months after birth, meaning they can begin learning to hear soon after learning to take their first steps.

And yet, most of us begin to learn language while still in the womb, so a child with a cochlear implant already faces a disadvantage in learning spoken language. Further complicating progress, the implant isn't a perfect replacement for natural hearing – it requires training and regular device adjustments.

For those and other reasons, many not yet known, language development can be delayed for deaf children – and the variability is immense. Some children speak so well they communicate indistinguishably from their typical-hearing counterparts, while other children develop almost no spoken-language skills.

So it should come as no surprise that parents of deaf children can struggle to communicate with them. This is why my colleagues and I at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are examining how children with cochlear implants learn words differently than their peers. We're trying to figure out what catches a child's attention during play, and how parents might use that information to better communicate with their children.

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Learning to Speak

When people communicate, we're not just hearing each other. There are all sorts of visual cues, plus cues from touch – in fact, all of our senses are active. When hearing is a challenge, those other cues become even more important in helping a child comprehend speech.

More than 90 percent of children with hearing loss are born to normal-hearing parents, and many studies suggest there's often a communication disconnect. Most parents have had little to no experience communicating with deaf adults, let alone kids. So to better understand how to remove those barriers, we've developed a way to carefully record how a parent and deaf child interact when new words are introduced.

We provide the parent with three objects, each a different color, that we cobbled together from various shapes – they look like toys you'd see in a Dr. Seuss book. We give each a made-up name and then ask the parent to teach that name to the child. It's freeplay, letting loose the language development process and then mining the rich data.

That data comes from video taken at several angles, using cameras in the room and head-mounted cameras with eye-trackers. We can record exactly where the child's focus is, what they're holding and how they react when a new word is said.

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We track what the child sees, what the parent sees, how they physically touch. All of it will help us answer specific questions about the session: When a parent teaches the name, is the object on the table or being held in front of the child? Does the parent say the name after presenting the object or after taking it away? Is the child watching the parent or the object? How long does the child get to play with the object?

It's an old-fashioned way of studying language development, observing a parent and child sitting at a table freely communicating. But with the new tech, we're able to learn what's happening with insights that no one has seen before.

Just Having a Conversation

Research is ongoing, but we've already made some powerful observations. For example, whether or not a child learns a word can depend on when a parent says a label and what the child is doing when that label is said.

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We've also learned that constant reinforcement is critical. Something as simple as a parent narrating everyday activities can be an incredibly valuable tool.

For some children, the transformation has been inspiring. One child we're working with is Logan Lodge. Born deaf, he's had a cochlear implant since just before his first birthday. Now 3 years old, he's been benefiting from his parents narrating their day, even with something as simple as his mom saying, "I'm pouring your cereal. Now I'm adding the milk." With such constant reinforcement, he's developing language skills almost on par with typically hearing peers.

Such results are becoming more common as the study continues. Seeing participants shed barriers and grow more natural with their conversations has been one of the greatest rewards of learning from kids like Logan. Now there are moments every day when his mom forgets he's deaf at all. It's an outcome that regardless of language, few words can express.

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How Children With Cochlear Implants Learn Words