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Communication and Language Development

Deafness from birth has an enormous impact on communication and language development. All children with hearing losses, regardless of the type or severity, can face challenges in these areas. They often have delays in both understanding (receptive) and using (expressive) language, and in developing age-appropriate vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

But before babies actually use and understand language, they must first establish a social-emotional connection with those around them – a connection that is the main building block for communication. This happens from birth in the home with those who know them best and spend the most time with them - their families. Early playful communication and bonding between caregivers and their babies lays the foundation for future language development. This includes making eye contact, turn taking, following the baby’s lead, and playing baby games like peek-a-boo.

Please visit this Boys Town National Research Hospital website page to read descriptions of how to build this early language foundation.

How does a baby with a hearing loss move from this early communication to developing language?

Language is not taught. Children acquire language in an environment where they have the opportunity to use lots of rich language to participate in activities that interest them, with others who can already use that language. For babies and young children these activities are not lessons, but are a part of everyday life such as playing a game, preparing a meal, or going for a walk. Family members chat with the child while they are engaged in these activities and it is through these interactions that language develops. Please visit this Cochlear website page - LEAPing on with language for more information on these interactions. 

The challenge for deaf babies is that they don’t hear the language in these interactions. Without access to the language, it cannot be acquired – even if the parents are doing lots of talking. This means it is crucial that the language is made available – children cannot develop language that they cannot access in the first place.


The good news is that deaf children have better access to spoken language than ever before using hearing technologies such as cochlear implants, digital hearing aids, and bone anchored implants. This means communication, speech and language development through audition is now within reach for many deaf children – if they have access to this technology and it is well managed. Some children may need additional support through signed support or other visual modes (e.g., speechreading, cued language) to make spoken language accessible. The most important thing to remember is not how deaf children get access to language, but that they do! For more information on communication and decision-making, please visit this Hands & Voices website pageA useful resource is Small Talk, which is available from The Ear Foundation website page - Small Talk.