Objective: By age 3, typically developing children have achieved extensive vocabulary and syntax skills that facilitate both cognitive and social development. Substantial delays in spoken language acquisition have been documented for children with severe to profound deafness, even those with auditory oral training and early hearing aid use. This study documents the spoken language skills achieved by orally educated 3-yr-olds whose profound hearing loss was identified and hearing aids fitted between 1 and 30 mo of age and who received a cochlear implant between 12 and 38 mo of age. The purpose of the analysis was to examine the effects of age, duration, and type of early auditory experience on spoken language competence at age 3.5 yr.
Design: The spoken language skills of 76 children who had used a cochlear implant for at least 7 mo were evaluated via standardized 30-minute language sample analysis, a parent-completed vocabulary checklist, and a teacher language-rating scale. The children were recruited from and enrolled in oral education programs or therapy practices across the United States. Inclusion criteria included presumed deaf since birth, English the primary language of the home, no other known conditions that interfere with speech/language development, enrolled in programs using oral education methods, and no known problems with the cochlear implant lasting more than 30 days.
Results: Strong correlations were obtained among all language measures. Therefore, principal components analysis was used to derive a single Language Factor score for each child. A number of possible predictors of language outcome were examined, including age at identification and intervention with a hearing aid, duration of use of a hearing aid, pre-implant pure-tone average (PTA) threshold with a hearing aid, PTA threshold with a cochlear implant, and duration of use of a cochlear implant/age at implantation (the last two variables were practically identical because all children were tested between 40 and 44 mo of age). Examination of the independent influence of these predictors through multiple regression analysis revealed that pre-implant-aided PTA threshold and duration of cochlear implant use (i.e., age at implant) accounted for 58% of the variance in Language Factor scores. A significant negative coefficient associated with pre-implant-aided threshold indicated that children with poorer hearing before implantation exhibited poorer language skills at age 3.5 yr. Likewise, a strong positive coefficient associated with duration of implant use indicated that children who had used their implant for a longer period of time (i.e., who were implanted at an earlier age) exhibited better language at age 3.5 yr. Age at identification and amplification was unrelated to language outcome, as was aided threshold with the cochlear implant. A significant quadratic trend in the relation between duration of implant use and language score revealed a steady increase in language skill (at age 3.5 yr) for each additional month of use of a cochlear implant after the first 12 mo of implant use. The advantage to language of longer implant use became more pronounced over time.
Conclusions: Longer use of a cochlear implant in infancy and very early childhood dramatically affects the amount of spoken language exhibited by 3-yr-old, profoundly deaf children. In this sample, the amount of pre-implant intervention with a hearing aid was not related to language outcome at 3.5 yr of age. Rather, it was cochlear implantation at a younger age that served to promote spoken language competence. The previously identified language-facilitating factors of early identification of hearing impairment and early educational intervention may not be sufficient for optimizing spoken language of profoundly deaf children unless it leads to early cochlear implantation.