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Girl Born With No Hearing Now Fluent In Two Languages

Hana Hollowell's English-speaking father and Japanese-speaking mother assumed their unborn child would speak both their mother tongues, but things changed two days after she was born.

"When she was a newborn we found out she was born with profound hearing impairment," father Jason Hollowell told 10 daily.

"Pretty much deaf," Hollowell, who is also a Professor of Linguistics at Musashi University, Tokyo said.

Hana was unable to hear 105 decibel sound -- which equates to a chainsaw or mobile phone at his highest volume.

After she turned one, she had cochlear implants surgically implanted in both ears. The neuroprosthetic device provides a sense of sound to a person with severe to profound hearing loss.

Jason and his daughter Hana as an infant after first cochlear implant surgery. IMAGE: supplied

"We never completely gave up on that goal to have her speaking two languages, but we stumbled for a while," he said.

Hana, now 10 and living in Sydney,  is fluent in both Japanese and English -- and for those who don't know her hearing history, her father said most wouldn't know she was deaf.

The schoolgirl is now part of a world-first study which seeks to uncover what words and sounds -- and which parts of language -- are the hardest for children with hearing loss to understand.

Hana and her parents. IMAGE: supplied

Katherine Demuth is a Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University and is the chief investigator of the new three-year study.

“Raising Hana bilingual may have helped her language acquisition because it’s given her more linguistic awareness, a better understanding of what it means to pull apart some of the sounds to convey meaning,” Professor Demuth said.

The study seeks to unravel what speaking challenges the 1,500 children in Australia who are fitted with cochlear implants as babies each year face.

Hana has been wearing cochlear implants in both ears for more than eight years. IMAGE: supplied

“Neither amplification of speech with hearing aids, nor cochlear implants, transmit normal speech sounds.

Unlike wearing glasses, which lets you see what fully-sighted people see, the brain has to learn to interpret the electric sounds it is hearing –- and that takes some effort,” Professor Demuth said.

On average, one Australian child is identified with impaired hearing every day and 1 in 1000 babies are born with significant hearing loss.

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The study is primarily focused on English, although Demuth said it will draw on her previous work with other languages. She acknowledges that some of the challenges might be different for bi-lingual children.

"Pitch is particularly challenging with cochlear implants for kids when it comes to Mandarin," she said.

The study is hoping to enlist more preschool and school-aged children -- with a range of hearing impairments as well as those with normal hearing.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au