What is the relationship between hearing, speech and language?
Hearing is important for speech and language development, communication, and learning. Children listen to others speak for approximately a whole year (even a little more) before they can actually start to speak. Unfortunately, many children with listening difficulties in Malta and in Gozo are not identified until a language delay becomes obvious.
The earlier hearing loss occurs in a child’s life, the more serious the effects would be on the child’s speech development. Similarly, the earlier the problem is identified and intervened, the less serious the ultimate impact.
There are four major ways in which hearing loss affects children:
- Hearing loss causes delay in the development of receptive communication skills (what the child can understand), and expressive communication skills (what the child can say).
- Communication difficulties often lead to isolation and challenging behaviour due to the child’s frustration when he/she cannot understand what is happening or what is expected of him/her or when he/she is not understood.
- The hearing difficulty causes learning problems that result in reduced academic achievement.
- It may have an impact on vocational choices if the child remains unsupported.
Signs of a Hearing Loss
The following indications can be a sign of hearing loss. When in doubt do check with an audiologist.
- A child shows lack of attention to sounds (birth–1 year)
- Doesn’t respond when you call his/her name (7 months–1 year)
- Doesn’t understand or respond to a simple direction/question (1–2 years)
- Shows delays in speech and language development (birth–3 years)
What You Can Do
Children identified with a hearing loss who begin speech therapy services early may be able to develop language (spoken and/or signed) on a par with their hearing peers. If a hearing loss is detected in your child, early family-centered intervention is recommended to promote language (speech and/or signed depending on family choices) and cognitive development. An audiologist, as part of an interdisciplinary team of professionals, will evaluate your child and suggest the most appropriate intervention program. A hearing test for children can be done at the ENT department at Mater Dei hospital, at the Gozo general hospital, or in private clinics. Baby signing has become quite popular even in Malta. This can help augment the language until the child is tested, fitted with the necessary hearing device, and learns to listen through his/her new hearing device. Later on, the family may decide to learn Maltese Sign language as an added language and means of communication. A speech therapist can help guide the parents on how to communicate and interact with their child even before the child is expected to start speaking. This helps the child build his/her listening skills and make the most of his/her learning opportunities. Speech and language therapy sessions aim to stimulate language development whether spoken and/or signed.
Sharon Mifsud is a qualified Speech Language Pathologist and Sign Language Interpreter . She completed a Degree in Communication Therapy at the University of Malta and is currently completing a Masters Degree in Disability Studies.