Monday, January 23, 2012

Listening is Language!

So my further posts on 2012 resolutions never materialized. To be continued, I guess.

For the moment, I'm just so astounded by how listening and language go hand-in-hand, at least at my current stage in the CI journey. Two auditory therapy sessions I've had in the last two weeks have hit it home for me just how much progress I've made in terms of piecing together sounds when those sounds come in the form of full sentences and phrases. That's the way listening is intended to be, right? Occasionally we hear and discern single words, but more often than not we are listening to the constant flow of the world around us. Sound doesn't happen in a bubble, a vacuum, in which individual words are discrete and isolated. And now I'm doing a better job of hearing that stream of speech and feeling comfortable with it, grabbing onto each piece as it comes, letting the whole thing fit together in my mind. Like magic, honestly.

Let me repeat that last bit: I'm hearing that stream and feeling comfortable with it. Haha! How amazing is that? I still clearly, clearly remember the days (not too long ago!) when the thought of listening to anything beyond one or two words terrified me. It felt impossible - really, it was impossible. During speech therapy in the first eighteen years of my life, my SLP and I would regularly do some base-level listening skills exercises, to develop and use the little hearing that I did have. These exercises came in the form of drills involving the same sets of words over and over again (baseball, bluebird, ice cream - anyone who has a hearing loss and has been subjected to these words in the auditory testing chamber can certainly relate!), some low-level questions about myself (what is your name? what is your address?), and some others that I can't remember, mostly because there wasn't much space to be creative. I never progressed too far beyond these exercises, which after a while we undertook mostly for maintenance and to pair speech development with some level of listening awareness. At that point, I couldn't imagine what the world of listening felt like beyond bluebird, bathtub, sailboat.

But now something ironic has happened. My brain, which already has its connections firing and ready to go with language (something that develops along with listening in hearing children - boy, has my own process taken a different path), is now jumping on that language/listening partnership with surprising gusto. When I drill minimal pair words, or any single words at all, I continue to feel less than confident. These words and drills do exist in a vacuum, a space in which the dynamic, interactive, problem-solving and language-using skills of my brain have no chance to strut their stuff. Single-word drill exercises rely heavily, if not quite solely, on my still underdeveloped capacity to hear something and have the appropriate neurons fire straight to an appreciable meaning. With one word and no linguistic context, that's a pretty hard thing to do. I overanalyze, return to thinking about phonemes and speech production, and end up feeling stuttering and paralyzed. So, instead, the exercises that I've done involving sentences or linguistic phrases (even when these fall into a wide-open set!) have recently become my favorites. They speak to what I already know how to do, but allow me to use my newfound listening skills to exhibit those existing grammatical and language-based proclivities.

A few examples. Exercises with my auditory therapist that involve sentences, stories, questions, and interactive language-based listening skills have recently become so, so much easier than they used to be. Instead of this unintelligible stream of sound that whizzes by too quickly for me to grasp, making my brain panic and scream and want to revert to single-word drills where I will at least have only a few phonemes to make sense of, I've somehow arrived at the point where I can proceed much more methodically. The words seem to go by slower instead of at warp speed, because I am able to make more sense of them when they do come. My grammatical sense kicks in: there's the subject, verb, pronoun, conjunction. If I miss one or another, I hold that spot in my mind until I have enough auditory information to go back and fill in the blanks, matching the rough sketch of what I might have heard with something more precise. And, in the process of filling in those blanks (something remarkably like lipreading! lifelong skills ftw!) I actually end up learning. The next time I hear that missed word, I jump on it much quicker. There are fewer gaps in general these days as I expand my auditory memory and become more skilled at grabbing words out of the air. The best days are when I don't need to think analytically at all, but when the words simply - come. Though I of course still get stuck, sentences like that are becoming more frequent.

All this auditory information would have been unfathomable to me a few months ago, let alone years. And in my daily interactions with people, I find that my mind latches onto phrases that others say to me at close range while passing. "Have a nice day," "see you later," "sounds good," "how are you?", and so forth are now old friends in my conversational listening world. I'd likely catch more than that if I tried, or had to, or put in the time to familiarize myself with these people's voices. I'm a little giddy just thinking of all this conversational speech. The new frontiers that have opened up, and the new and wonderful clarity that I'm discovering with the CI, where language just comes in and sounds and feels natural, like I've visually known it for years but yet never discovered in the specific mode of hearing.

I really can't describe this newfound liking for listening-cum-language skills or how much it means to me. Listening is language! Just like language on the page or signed in the air or anywhere else! Ahhh what a concept!

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