It’s very easy to get comfortable in a rhythm, where you feel like you fit. Whether or not you like that rhythm doesn’t matter, it’s easy. You’re in sync with your life and in rhyme with the people around you. When you face an ongoing challenge, such as hearing loss or chronic illness, it’s common to lose that. You have to constantly find new ways to function and find your old rhythm and rhyme or challenge yourself to find new ones. I try to always choose to work towards new ones, so this last month I’ve purposely pushed myself into some challenging hearing situations – new accents and a new language.
Back in my pre-implant but post-hearing days, I used to say my favorite voices to hear speaking were British men. Think Patrick Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kenneth Branaugh. Not only have men’s voices just always been easier because they are lower pitched, there’s something about all European accents, especially British, that make it easier to understand what’s being said.
Vowels in speech fall on a lower pitch than consonants naturally (very few vowels are above 550Hz), which is about the line where my natural hearing drops from the mild to moderate hearing loss range (and then dramatically falls to severe/profound anything higher than that). I suspect what’s happening with a British speaker is the shift of the vowel sounds brings them even further to the lower frequency side. Also, since I already lose out on a bunch of consonants, I am constantly hearing as if they are dropped or glottal stopped anyway, so I can easily extrapolate the word I’m hearing. (Although, if you wanted to get into technicalities, a cockney accent actually raises some of the vowels.)
About a year or so ago, I became Facebook friends with some other Debbie Gibson fans who happen to live the in UK. She announced a concert in Dallas in October, and we all decided to meet up and go. I’ve been chatting with them online often lately, along with some others who are going, but mostly these three British guys. I was a little concerned about being able to understand them and follow conversations with them when we meet in person – as I am with all new people I meet, but this one has the extra layer of “accents” going on.
Anticipating my anxiety, my friend Lynton decided to help make things easier on me and recorded himself speaking. I thought that hearing him say words that I know would help me get used to his voice, so he spoke the lyrics of my favorite Debbie Gibson song (“Sure”) and his favorite (“No More Rhyme”). It was extremely helpful and oddly soothing. We then tried a call over Facebook. It took a brief moment for my brain to remember it had heard (and understood) his voice. Took slightly longer to get our other friend Lea, but once I did it was like I’d been chatting with them my whole life. Very quickly found the rhythm of their speech and we are all in rhyme with each other. Very excited to hear them in person in October and finally meet these new friends.
Additionally, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn Norwegian and know basic phrases such as “Jeg hører ikke noe” – “I don’t hear anything.” One thing I had said I wanted to do this year was try hearing a new language. I knew I didn’t want to go with a language I’d studied in the past when hearing – so that ruled out Italian, Spanish, and French (none of which I really learned to actually speak, but I can still read them on a basic level somewhat). German seemed like the logical choice, since that is my heritage. But as a person who can’t hear sounds like “ch” or “sh” or distinguish between “f” and “s” or “d” and “t”, that seemed like a bad idea. I chose Norwegian for a couple of reasons: I didn’t know a single word, Google Translate sucks when I’m trying to read interviews with A-ha, I would like to visit there someday, it’s supposedly the gateway language to all the other Scandinavian languages, and I’ll need it when my brother opens a Norwegian Forest Cat sanctuary.
I chose Duolingo because it’s free and it’s like playing a game. Most people play things like Candy Crush or Words With Friends on their phone. I now play “learn Norwegian.” After 30 days of using it for about 10-15 minutes a day, I’m confident that if I ever run into the person who is the Duolingo speaker, I’ll completely be able to understand her. Otherwise, I might be able to write that I’m hard of hearing, what my name is, and that I speak English. But not speak it, which is something else entirely.
For the longest time, I feared that I had developed the “deaf” accent when I speak – since I can no longer hear the words in my own voice any more than I can hear them in anyone else’s. I don’t think many people notice it, but it made me very insecure about speaking overall. Speaking in another accent or language was a definite no. Even now with my CI, I’m extremely self-conscious about my speech patterns. Actually speaking another language is a completely different rhythm that I’m not ready to add yet.
By pushing myself into these challenges, on purpose, I feel like I’m being proactive and continuing to grow my hearing. I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop like I used to before the CI – I was always thinking “someday it’s going to get worse”. Now the shift to “every push makes it better” leaves me without fear of what happens when there’s no more rhyme.