In a world where people predominantly possess a sense of hearing, many people have questions about the challenges faced by those with deafness. Those with a particular interest in the deaf community are older adults who may be experiencing increased hearing loss or onset deafness. Considering one in three people between the ages of 65 to 74 are dealing with hearing loss and around 466 million total individuals are living with hearing loss or deafness throughout the world, we at CaptionCall want to take some time here to answer common questions about the deaf world, such as whether deaf people can hear themselves, how deaf people think, and what it’s like to be deaf.
Note: The following includes information about deafness readily available on the internet. We understand this is a sensitive issue and not every deaf person will agree. We hope this article will serve as a conversation starter and provide insight into the question of whether deaf people can hear themselves or not. It is by no means a definitive answer and we certainly don’t mean to make any broad assumptions.
Do Deaf People Hear Their Own Voice?
If you’re wondering whether deaf people can hear their own voice, the short answer is: it depends. Someone who is born with complete hearing loss that can’t be improved with hearing aids will never have a chance to hear their own voice.
An individual who is born with hearing but over time loses the sense completely due to disease, accidents, genetics, or other circumstances will be able to hear their voice as other hearing people do. As their hearing disappears, they’ll have the memory of what their voice sounds like but they’ll lose the ability to physically hear themselves. A person with medium hearing loss or hearing issues that can be improved with a hearing aid may have a chance to hear their voice as well.
This short video gives a brief example of what people may be able to hear at various levels of hearing loss.
Since levels of deafness and hearing vary from person to person, the way a deaf individual sounds when they speak also varies. Here is just one example of how a deaf individual may sound when speaking.
Brain Changes for Hearing and Deafness
Two parts of the brain are affected by deafness: the temporal lobe and the left hemisphere. In the temporal lobe, Wernicke’s area processes sound as well as written and spoken language. The Broca’s area, located in the left hemisphere, helps translate thoughts into speech.
For people who are born deaf or lose their hearing at a very young age, these areas of the brain may be affected without verbal speech and language. However, studies show that using sign language can activate them. This means that these areas respond to the perception and production of sign language the same way they respond to speech. So, although they function similarly, a deaf individual’s brain responds to visuals, while a hearing person’s brain responds to sounds.
What Professionals and Deaf Individuals Say
“Having had some degree of hearing loss for a long time, I remember how I used to sound. When I speak, I have a mental representation in my mind but no physical or nerve hearing outside of some vibration in the bones and sinus cavities of the head and in the larynx, so I know I am speaking and making sound apart from the lip and tongue movements.” — Jerry C.S., Previous hearing, now deaf
“I’m deaf and I don’t hear my own voice. I do feel my voice, though. But feeling isn’t really a good way of modulating my speech so I don’t bother trying to use my voice as a main means of communication. And, to save time: No, hearing aids don’t help me to hear my own voice. Because I cannot distinguish between the stuff I hear around me and my voice, it all sounds the same to me — like gibberish!” — Michele W., Deaf and native ASL speaker
“Some people have mixed hearing loss, which — due to profound hearing loss in air conduction — makes them deaf to other people, but their bone conduction is good enough for them to hear themselves speak. This applies mostly to adults; since some children with profound, mixed hearing loss do not learn to speak ( as they cannot hear speech), they cannot hear themselves.
But everyone with profound sensorineural hearing loss cannot hear themselves speak.” — John A., Audiologist and hearing aid dispenser
What About an Inner Voice?
While deaf individuals may not physically hear their voice, many people wonder if deaf people have an inner voice. An inner voice, also known as an internal monologue or the voice inside your head, is a phenomenon created by certain brain mechanisms that allow you to “hear” yourself talking in your mind, even when you aren’t speaking aloud. While many hearing people have this internal voice, it isn’t something that occurs in everyone.
The Deaf Internal Monologue
If they’ve ever heard their voice, deaf people may have a “speaking” internal monologue, but it’s also possible that this internal monologue may be present without a “voice.” When asked, most deaf people report that they don’t hear a voice at all. Instead, they see the words in their head through sign language.
What Professionals and Deaf Individuals Say
“I wouldn’t say I ‘hear it,’ but I do think in sound. I can consciously change the sound, too. The interesting thing is when I’m thinking about conversations in the hearing world or things I typically experience around the hearing world; my verbal ‘thinking out loud’ hearing voice plays in my head. I have an additional quirk where sometimes my lips move [without sound]. I try to remember people don’t do that.
If I’m thinking about conversations in the deaf world, communication needs, or things that I experience typically in the deaf world, I often think in sign language. I don’t exactly “see it” either, but I think visually and I’m definitely thinking in sign language. What’s interesting is my quirk appears here, too. If I’m really lost in thought, I will slightly be moving my hands.” — Cassandra J., Deaf
“I think mostly in words or images. Sometimes, the images are comprehensive, but more often, they are fleeting and rapid and allow for more impression or connection than a full pictorial image. Sometimes, I’m aware that I have an impression of something as a thought.
I find that the language I use in my thoughts is often context-related. If I’m thinking of incidents or discussions involving other hearing people or related domains (such as work), I tend to think in words. If I am thinking of incidents or discussions involving other deaf people, I tend to think in sign. I also move my lips a lot when I think in words. Interestingly, I do the same type of ‘mumble’ type of movement with my hands when I think in sign. I have to catch myself doing either, at least in public. I find that I use more pictures when I’m trying to think through a problem or make connections between things. None of that is set in stone, and there is plenty of crossover, but I have thought about this a time or two.” Cassie J., Deaf
“It really depends on what language the person learns. Someone who is congenitally deaf may have a cochlear implant early on and learn to speak virtually flawless English (or whatever other spoken language they’re surrounded by), in which case, they will probably think in that. Instead, they may grow up in a deaf community and learn sign language. In this case, there’s no reason to assume they wouldn’t just think primarily in signs, just like speakers think in words. They could also have a cochlear implant but still grow up in a deaf community and learn sign. In this case, they will likely think in both languages much like any other bilingual, but depending on which they use more, one might be dominant, and this could change depending on the situation.” — Chrissy C., Linguistics Researcher
“I was born deaf. I did have speech therapy at an early age and while growing up. My inner voice is figuratively speaking to me, and I hear it as well as lipread it. This is the same voice that I imagine people have when they read blocks of text and hear them in their heads. I don’t exactly see some creepy “Voldemort” face in my head, but I always have some image of lips moving along with a voice that I hear.
At the same time, I do remember when I was little and didn’t speak at all; all my memories were heavily visual and olfactory. I would always remember specific images of locations and could describe them to my parents in vivid detail trying to figure out what I was remembering. Before speech therapy, my inner voice was highly visual.
Now, as I’m learning/studying sign language in my free time, I’m finding that my inner voice has grown hands as well, and I sometimes read things and hear a voice, lip read, and see signs all at the same time. I would expect that a similar experience happens with those who are bilingual/multilingual and sometimes hear all languages at once when reading a text, or perhaps sometimes it switches languages in their heads (although it is a little different because they would hear in whatever language they’re reading in for example).” — Giordon S., Deaf
What Is It Like to Be Deaf?
Without actually being deaf, it can be difficult to explain what it’s like. In discussing this matter with deaf individuals, many express that their lives are relatively normal while also being different. An anonymous Quora contributor — let’s call her Ashley — gave insight into her own experience growing up deaf.
- Education — Ashley’s educational experience was different. She attended deaf programs in her school district while her parents took ASL courses to help them communicate with her.
- Language — Ashley’s parents were given the option of learning Oralism (language through speech and lip-reading) or ASL (American Sign Language). They opted for ASL due to the visual learning aspect and because Ashley couldn’t hear anything, even when using hearing aids.
- Socialization — Starting when she was four months old, Ashley attended an infant deaf program and continued through similar programs through most of her childhood. This allowed her to befriend many other deaf children as well as adults from different backgrounds. However, Ashley also has many hearing individuals in her close circle, and she enjoys interacting frequently with the hearing community.
Eventually, Ashley received cochlear implants, which allowed her to regain some of her hearing. Cochlear implants are a hot debate in the deaf world but Ashley doesn’t regret her choice to get them. While she doesn’t hear exactly like a hearing person, she enjoys what she can hear. She also appreciates the ability to turn off her implants when she wants to.
The biggest takeaway Ashley wants people to remember is that she doesn’t see deafness as a disability (as most deaf people don’t). Instead, she focuses on what deafness adds to her life and all the experiences she has gained through the deaf community.
“Deafness has shaped my life, mostly for the better. Because of my deafness, I see the world in a different way. I’m more creative in how I communicate. I don’t mind being somewhere where I don’t know the language. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.
Deafness can be inconvenient. Sometimes, I wish I could hear someone yell from across the yard. Other times, I get annoyed at how people treat me. Inconvenience doesn’t mean that my life is any less rich or worth living than a hearing person’s.
My deafness was never a tragedy. It’s just a different way of living.”
Deafness and Hearing: An Individual Experience
Many different factors dictate whether a deaf individual can hear their voice or their inner voice, and — for the most part — every deaf or hard of hearing individual has their own experience with hearing loss. So, when asking if a deaf person can hear themselves, just know that it truly does depend on individual situations and circumstances. Like Ashley said, “deafness isn’t a tragedy. It’s just a different way of living.”