Adapting Abroad: Languages, Hearing Loss, Neural Plasticity

Language differences today can be divisive and challenging – they can separate people and halt communication altogether. How can it be then, that at the same time, language can be a uniting front and bring millions of people together? Perhaps then it is not the language being “good” or “bad”, but the people trying to use the language as a tool of communication.
When you learn your “mother tongue” it is effortless. You don’t think about it, it is all you know. It is how everyone talks to you as a baby. It is what you develop and refine throughout your childhood and even into adulthood. English, German, French, American Sign Language – it doesn’t matter what it may be. The point is that it was effortless to learn. If asked “how did you learn English” I would tell you that it is all I have ever known. Formal education then introduces you to another language, at an older age. This is where the process then becomes more laboured – requiring more attention and focus. For some it may be easier to pick up a 2nd or 3rd language, while for others it may be more difficult.

I chose French as a second language to learn in grammar school. While I was immersed in the coursework I could comprehend and use my second language interchangeably with my first language. As I started to use French less and less, it became harder to remember simple words, rules, etc. Now, almost 12+ years after finishing level 3 French classes, I can hardly remember it at all.

Fast forward to the present day, where I am immersed in a foreign country surrounded by a population that speaks not only German, but French, Italian, and English, to name a few. Even more impressive is the fact that one person often speaks two or three languages interchangeably throughout the day. To say that I am humbled by this fact and ability is an understatement. If you were to ask someone here when they learned these languages, it will vary – from a child to older adult – however, regardless of age, a common sentiment is that it was “normal” for them. So if they can do it, why can’t I?

Over the past month I have been taking German courses on my own, trying to pick up common words and phrases that would allow me to follow a conversation. While I have retained some information, I must say that the process has been both difficult and eye-opening. To add another level of complexity to the adventure, I tried to think of how it may be trying to learn a second language with a hearing loss. Which then lead me to think of the amazing capabilities of the human brain. Do we truly appreciate the brain as a “muscle” – or do we take it for granted? Does it fill in the gaps of hearing loss, does it create sounds only we can hear, does it ever stop working or become “tired” or “exhausted”? Do we pay it the credit it truly deserves?

As an audiologist we are classically trained to recognize the hearing “loss” – identify and tell you what you cannot hear, how your brain may be “misunderstanding” the signals it’s receiving, what you’re missing. We are not trained to highlight the amazing action(s) and capabilities your brain partakes in every second of every day. We do not look at a child with amazement as they learn not one, but two languages to communicate. We do not celebrate these amazing accomplishments. If we were more aware of the millions of tasks our brain completes in milliseconds would we then develop a greater respect or understanding of the interventions we create to ‘aid’ it?

The concept of “neural plasticity” has gained attention over the past 10+ years. Our understanding of the mechanisms required for basic functionality has grown. We have more interest in understanding the “unexpected” functions (i.e. tinnitus) experienced not only by the brain as whole, but specific locations within.

So what does “neural plasticity” even mean? Are our brains made of rubber? No, not at all. However, we know based on years of research that our brains are malleable. Therefore, based on the inputs the brain receives every day, over years and years, reorganization occurs. Think of it this way: you walk to work the same way every day, until one day there is a fallen tree blocking your path that causes you to walk on the grass around it, creating a new path. Over the next three months you continue to use this new path until the tree has been cleared. The next day when you walk to work there are two visible paths and, out of habit, you continue to use the path you originally created to get around the fallen tree. Perhaps you never go back to the original path. You continue on the ‘new path’. Therefore you’ve created a new way to get to the same destination. This is neural plasticity. If the brain suffers a trauma or any type of interruption of an existing pathway, it finds “a different way”. When it realizes it can continue to achieve the overall goal with this new path, it continues to use that pathway. We adapt, we grow.

How amazing is that?! Ask yourself just how much you take your brain for granted every day! Think of your daily “routine” – the way you get to work, your habits at work, when you get home from work. Each individual has their own physical and mental (i.e. neurological) routines that they follow every day. Add on to that a trauma or insult experienced – from hearing loss to traumatic brain injury, cancer, surgical intervention, etc. How would you adjust? Would it be difficult? Take for example brushing your teeth with the other hand. Hard? Easy? In today’s technology landscape, we can provide assistance to the brain to help it regain its balance and continue to accomplish the millions of tasks we ask of it every single day.

Currently, a new study has recently been published in the Journal of Neuroscience titled “Brain anatomy differences between deaf, hearing depend on first language learned“. Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have discovered differences in the physical brain anatomy in normal hearing individuals who learned English as their first language in comparison to deaf individuals who learned American Sign Language (ASL). These differences have never been taken into account regarding the diversity in language experiences. The results of the study identified — regardless of language experience — a difference in the volume of white matter in the auditory cortex in the brain, as well as differences in left hemisphere of the brain that houses the language areas in the individuals whose specific native language was ASL. Therefore, since both language and audition (hearing) are in nearby locations in the brain, the identification and further understanding of any physical, structural, or organizational differences becomes key in understanding which experiences (i.e. first language learned) shape the brain.

Does this change your perspective on the “muscle” we know as our brains? If you knew that you had to be more aware of how you treated your brain what would you change? Would you change anything at all? I remind myself every day that I am very lucky to have a healthy brain and that I can utilize its unyielding power and potential to complete my daily tasks. At the same time I am humbled every time I meet someone who has a hearing loss and has adapted and learned to use a ‘new path’ whether it be via hearing aids, a cochlear implant, American Sign Language, etc. The neurophysiology of those individual brains can only continue to amaze me and are true neurological works of art.

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