No matter which way you look at it, that question is a bit of a head scratcher.
Many people think all deaf people are automatically mute, which means they are unable to produce any vocal sounds at all.
Others understand that deaf people could hypothetically speak, but it’s almost impossible to learn if they were born deaf and have never heard sound in their lives.
Still others may assume that all deaf people can speak normally—after all, why should a lack of hearing prevent you from speaking?
The answer? Well, one way or another, these are all correct.
Why Can Some Deaf People Talk, but Others Can’t?
It turns out that a deaf person’s ability to speak depends on what type of deafness they have.
Now, there are many different ways to categorize deafness, and most of the categories you might read about online deal with the physical phenomena actually causing the deafness. Is it a problem with the outer ear? The inner ear? The brain?
But the categorization I’m referring to is a little different: timeline. A deaf person’s ability to talk depends strongly on whether they were born deaf or whether they became deaf later in life.
Congenital and Prelingual Deafness
If a person was born deaf, they are congenitally deaf. If a person developed deafness before they learned to speak or understand speech, they are prelingually deaf. As you can probably guess, these types of deafness are largely the same in terms of their effects on a person’s ability to speak.
In and of itself, being born deaf has zero effect on the windpipe (trachea), the voice box (larynx), or the vocal cords. This means that there are no real physical constraints preventing a congenitally or prelingually deaf person from speaking. If you asked them to, most of these people could produce sounds without too much trouble.
That said, there are cases where the condition that causes deafness also causes physical abnormalities which prevent speech. Examples of this can include head injuries during birth or substances ingested by the mother during pregnancy. In these cases, the person is physically unable to produce sound, so learning to talk will never be a possibility.
In most cases, when people with congenital or prelingual deafness can’t talk, it’s because of their brains’ inability to understand sound. It’s not that they can’t produce sounds—it’s that they just can’t conceive of what sounds to produce or how to produce them. For people who can hear, this is a weird thought, since sound is such a natural part of life.
So some people who were born deaf technically can learn to speak, with enough dedicated training. But the process takes so long and it’s so counter-intuitive that most deaf people opt to use sign language instead (discussed in more detail below).
Acquired deafness is deafness that was… well, acquired. Causes of acquired deafness can be anything from listening to overly loud music, to contracting meningitis or other illnesses, to taking ototoxic drugs.
Generally speaking, the physical challenges of talking with acquired deafness vs. congenital or prelingual deafness are the same. That is, there are no challenges; the body’s speech functions are untouched.
Similarly, though, if deafness is caused by something like a traumatic accident, it’s possible that the vocal functions have been damaged as well, resulting in a true inability to talk.
When it comes to the brain’s ability to produce and make sense of sound, folks with acquired deafness clearly have a leg up on those who were born deaf. Up until their hearing loss started to become significant, these people had spent their whole lives hearing sound and communicating with their voices.
Of course, there are challenges. As you can imagine, it’s much easier to become lazy with pronunciation and much harder to regulate speaking volume for people who can’t actually hear their own speech. But in general, the fact that the brain can conceive of what sound actually is means that those with acquired deafness have a major advantage in their ability to talk.
So, in most cases, deaf people can talk—or at the very least, they can produce sounds. That said, it’s not always the most ideal way to communicate. And for people with congenital or prelingual deafness, learning to talk in the first place comes with extreme difficulty.
So how do deaf people get around this? Let’s take a look at three of the most common methods used to remedy communication difficulties for deaf people.
Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with sign language. Though it’s 100% visual, sign language has actually been shown to activate the same parts of the brain that are activated by auditory language.
There are three different aspects to each sign language gesture: the shape, the position, and the movement of the hands. Though there’s a separate symbol in sign language for each letter of the alphabet, the majority of the symbols are used to communicate whole phrases as opposed to just letters.
Because it’s entirely visual, sign language is usually the most convenient method of communication for those with complete (or “profound”) deafness.
Many people assume that reading lips is simply a matter of know-how. They think that once you learn how to do it, you can do it perfectly—end of story! Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Reading lips can be tremendously effective, but there are some pretty significant shortcomings as well.
The biggest one is that, no matter how good you are, it’s simply impossible to tell certain words apart when you’re reading lips. A funny, commonly cited example is “vacuum” and f&%! you”—these words are virtually indistinguishable from each other when detected only by reading the lips.
That being said, reading lips is an amazing tool for deaf people who want to blend in and feel like they’re communicating normally.
It’s important to remember that there are far more people in the world with severe hearing loss than profound deafness. For these people, hearing aids are an excellent solution to remedy both speaking and hearing.
Hearing aids aren’t perfect, and often they over-amplify loud noises. But generally speaking, they are amazingly effective at bringing up the base level of hearing to a point where deaf people can converse normally.
As a byproduct, hearing aids also amplify the sounds of deaf peoples’ own voices, allowing them to speak much more clearly and effectively.
While not as popular as it used to be in U.S. schools, speech training can help a deaf or hard of hearing person learn how to speak. Speech therapy involves doing vocal exercises, breath control, lip reading, feeling vocal vibrations by placing their hand on the speech language specialist’s throat, and regular practice.
One good example of a totally deaf person who received successful speech training is Helen Keller. In this video, you can see/hear her speak; while her speech is not perfect, it’s not very hard to understand what she’s saying if you pay close attention.
Here’s a quick summary of everything covered above:
- All deaf people, whether they were born deaf or not, can produce sounds with their voices just as hearing people can. The only exception to this is if the malady that caused deafness also caused damage to the speech faculties. In these cases, deaf people are truly, physically mute.
- People who were born deaf have a much harder time learning to speak than people with acquired deafness, as they’ve literally never heard sounds or talking before. That said, it still is possible to learn (which is very impressive!)
- Sign language, lip reading, and hearing aids are three of the most common methods used to remedy communication problems for deaf people. Of these three, sign language and hearing aids are the most effective.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a deaf person learn to talk?
Deaf people can absolutely learn to talk. In general, however, it’s much more difficult for those who were born deaf. It’s easier for those with acquired deafness, as they can remember what it’s like to talk and hear sounds.
Can a deaf person hear their own voice?
If someone is deaf, they’re deaf. It really means that they cannot hear any sounds, whether from themselves or others. However, many people who are considered functionally deaf can still hear sounds, only very faintly.
What language do deaf people think in?
If a person is born deaf, they do not think linguistically, but instead think through images. If a person became deaf later on in life, they mostly think linguistically in their native language.
Can deaf people scream?
Yes! Screaming when surprised, scared, or in pain is an instinct that many people have, whether they’re deaf or not. Just because they’re deaf doesn’t mean that they cannot scream. However, a deaf person may not scream “help” clearly like a hearing person would.
Why do deaf people sound weird?
Unlike hearing people, deaf people can not hear their own voice and the voices of other people. The inability to hear the different tones or intonation patterns in people’s speech makes it difficult for them to replicate.
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