Brooklyn writer reveals ‘Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language’
Brooklyn BookBeat: Author To Speak in Park Slope
Brooklyn-based science journalist Lydia Denworth has devoted her life to the art of words and language. A former Newsweek reporter, London bureau chief at People magazine and professor of Journalism at Fordham University, Denworth is particularly attuned to linguistics and semantics — yet when her third son, Alex, was a baby, all she knew about language seemed to failed her. Just before Alex turned two, he was diagnosed with moderate to profound hearing loss, and Denworth was forced to come to terms with the fact that her evening routine of reading and singing lullabies had not reached her son in the way she had imagined.
Though she was distraught, Denworth resolved to take charge of the situation. She extensively researched the issues her son faced and quickly learned that hearing is intricately tied to language and literacy. Alex struggled to learn to talk, even with hearing aids, and before long, his hearing deteriorated. Denworth and her husband opted to get Alex a cochlear implant — a life-changing and controversial piece of technology.
In her new book, “I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language” (Dutton; April 17 Denworth reveals her extraordinary journey toward understanding the brain’s remarkable plasticity as she relates one boy’s convoluted quest to grasp language and literacy.
Denworth will speak about her book in Brooklyn on April 23 at Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim (274 Garfield Place). The event, co-hosted by Community Bookstore, will begin at 7:30 p.m.
In the below Q&A, provided by Dutton, Denworth sheds light on the controversy surrounding cochlear implants and speaks about how Alex, now an 11-year-old student at Brooklyn’s Berkeley Carroll School, is doing today.
Why were cochlear implants so controversial when they were introduced? Are they still?
For the culturally Deaf, cochlear implants were just the latest in a long line of attempted “fixes” for deafness, and implants came along just as the Deaf civil rights movement was taking hold. That movement celebrated American Sign Language and delivered the message that deafness was a difference not a disability. From that point of view, the idea of an implant was offensive and threatening. The technology seemed to have the potential to destroy Deaf culture because no one thought it would be possible to have a cochlear implant and be Deaf. Plus, Deaf people didn’t think implants would work any better than anything else had.
Today, there are still some who are deeply opposed to cochlear implants and emotions can still be pretty raw. But there are also a lot of people in the deaf community, especially younger people, who have come around to accepting the devices. Pragmatically speaking, cochlear implants are here to stay. And they do work—not perfectly and not for everyone, but they do work. As a result, the new emphasis in the deaf community is less about opposition than about promoting the benefits of ASL and Deaf culture.
Can you explain the difference between people who identify as deaf vs. those who identify with the “capital-D Deaf” community? How do people with cochlear implants see themselves?
Deaf with a small “d” refers to the audiological condition of not hearing. Deaf with a capital “D” refers to Deaf culture. Big D Deaf use ASL and actively participate in the Deaf community. They feared that someone with a cochlear implant could never be part of Deaf culture, but I met people at Gallaudet with implants, so happily that is not necessarily true. Having a cochlear implant does make it far easier to operate fluently in the hearing world, but it doesn’t make you hearing. Whether someone with an implant identifies as deaf or Deaf seems like a matter of personal choice and perhaps circumstance. Alex is being raised in the hearing world, but he knows that Deaf culture is out there if he ever wants to explore it.
While researching hearing and sound, you actually learned much more about the brain and its remarkable plasticity, especially in children. What are some of the main points you hope parents will learn from this book—and not just those parents with hearing-impaired children?
I hope parents won’t take sound for granted. From the first days of life, a child’s experience of sound gets etched into his or her brain in the form of connections made or not made. On some level that’s obvious but on another it’s profound. Until relatively recently, I don’t think anyone understood just how tightly sound, in the form of early language, is linked to not just speaking but to reading and the learning that reading makes possible. I also hope parents will turn down the noise both to protect hearing and so that all kids hear better. Some of the things we’ve had to do with Alex—like teaching him to politely ask quiet classmates to repeat themselves in circle time, or dealing with a noisy air conditioner in a classroom—turned out to benefit everyone.
How do you envision the future of hearing loss technology? Do you think there might be a “cure” one day?
Cochlear implants are a pretty mature technology. There will continue to be improvements in areas like listening to music and hearing in noise, but the devices are unlikely to change dramatically. The real difference in the future will come from research in areas such as gene therapy and hair cell regeneration. A lot of very smart people are working very hard on figuring out how to protect or restore hearing at the level of the cell. I wouldn’t bet against them. If cochlear implants could be made to work, I believe regeneration and the like can be made to work, too. I don’t think parents today should wait though. It will probably be ten years or more before such efforts move to the clinic. I also don’t know if any of those efforts will result in a “cure” or if, as with implants, they will improve hearing to a point that makes it easier to operate.
How is [Alex] doing today? What does he think of this book?
Alex is doing really well. He is certainly one of the success stories. He turn[ed] 11 on April 11, the week before the book [was] published. He is in 5th grade at Berkeley Carroll, the same school he moves to in the book for pre-K. (At the end of the book, we move to Hong Kong, and Alex was in 2nd and 3rd grade there.) Berkeley Carroll is a wonderful place where he has really thrived. He loves history and basketball and has a great group of friends. I don’t think his friends give his hearing a moment’s thought. But I do.
As the academics get harder, there are new challenges, like hearing the difference between meteor, meteorite, and meteoroid in science or the difference between llegar and llevar in Spanish class. He gets extra support to shore him up. He is pretty excited about the book, though of course he is a little too young to understand everything in it. Writing it did give me the opportunity to talk to him about some of the negative views of cochlear implants and about the positive aspects of Deaf culture. He says he is happy with the choice that Mark and I made for him. He likes to hear.
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