My sister used to read EVERYTHING growing up. She liked Shakespeare and The Secret Garden and Shel Silverstein (still does); The Babysitter’s Club series and Sweet Valley High (of course).  We’d spend road trips with a towering pile of Archie comics between us and we’d devour them all eagerly. Once we even found her reading the phonebook during one of our evenings at Granny’s house, while the rest of the family engaged in dinner conversation.

It’s no coincidence that, even having lost her hearing due to meningitis at the age of 4 , she excelled in school, was valedictorian of her (hearing) class, a Toastmaster, and is now a successful school psychologist – her relationship with words was a major catalyst in not allowing her hearing loss cause her skip a beat.

The role our mother played in encouraging her language development was monumental – she would do everything from play word games with her in the car to reading a library of children’s nursery rhymes and books.  (I totally benefitted from it all too!) As a result, my sister’s level of reading was quite advanced, such that when they did her two-day assessment for school placement after she lost her hearing at age four, we were told that she was smart, on level and could integrate into regular school with no problem.  

My sister was followed for several months by a speech and learning specialist who worked on her language using many modalities like books, pictures, games, puzzles and listening exercises. Of course, my mom and her always did ‘homework’!  By the summer of 1984, the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf’s  assessment concurred that she was advanced in terms of her reading ability for a four year old despite the fact that she had been profoundly deaf for the preceding 6 months.

Somethings I grew up with but never thought twice about in terms of cognitive development, were watching television with closed captions (it’s still my preference!) and taking piano lessons (which I hated).  In our mother’s words:

“I believe the advent of telecaptioning helped [her] tremendously. Because she could read, she could continue to watch certain TV shows and actually read along, thus continuing to attach meaning to written words. Reading continued to be a big part of her life so that unlike many deaf children her reading was above, not below, grade level.  Initially we shied away from singing songs she used to know…. Like the Annie soundtrack but later I signed her up for piano, it being a percussion instrument with abrupt sounds and rhythms she could learn.”

Once it became clear that traditional hearing aids weren’t going to be of any use to my sister, my parents explored the possibility of a still experimental technology for her: a cochlear implant.  The cochlear implant stimulates auditory nerves and the brain stores auditory memory. Because my sister had speech and language history prior to her hearing loss, there was speech and language information that resurfaced once the auditory nerves were stimulated. This is why the implant at the time was so much more successful with post-lingual children, since without prior language and speech, her auditory memory would have been minimal. 

I asked my mom her thoughts on how language played a role in my sister’s success with the implant and she shared: “[She] was able to re-establish connections between the new implant sounds (information) and the previously acquired language and speech and their associated meanings. As remarkable as it was that she lost her speech so rapidly (within 2-3 months) so was it remarkable how the implant was able to reconnect the information and recover her speech. Without the speech and language already stored in her brain, her journey to continued language acquisition would have been much longer and may never have reached the levels it did.”

The fact that my mom worked so hard to ensure that we were exposed to so much language so early on, helped to avert a potential ‘word gap’ that my sister very well could have experienced when she lost her hearing at age 4.  If a child deprived of optimal language development reaches age 3 with a 500 word vocabulary and loses her hearing, an auditory stimulation from an implant could only retrieve those 500 words. Compare that to a child of 3 who has 1200 words stored in her auditory memory. The implant would enable access to that much larger vocabulary. The implant being a poor replica for actual auditory nerves, would also allow for much slower acquisition of additional vocabulary words and a longer and harder journey to an age appropriate vocabulary.

This is my sister’s unique story.  But the truth of the matter is, hearing loss or not, language is key!  Many kids whose parents and caregivers don’t talk with them from a young age end up having about half the words of their peers—generally these lines break down around income status.  But any kid is susceptible if their caregivers don’t talk to them from birth.

And remember, from comic books to phone books to poetry and pre-teen fiction – every word counts.

This is a sponsored post for Go Mighty and the Too Small to Fail initiative with partners Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation to illustrate the power of ‘parent talk.’ Learn more at TooSmall.org .