To examine the effects of unilateral hearing loss on children’s ability to perceive familiar words and to learn and retain new words. Because children with unilateral hearing loss receive full auditory input in one ear, their performance was expected to be consistent with that of children with normal hearing rather than that of children with moderate bilateral hearing loss.
Participants were 36 school-age children with normal hearing bilaterally, 11 children with moderate bilateral hearing loss, and 11 children with mild-to-profound unilateral hearing loss (six right and five left). Half of the normally hearing children and two-thirds of the children with unilateral hearing loss were from bilingual Spanish/English-speaking homes. One of the 11 children with bilateral hearing loss was from a bilingual Spanish/English-speaking home. All children completed a word recognition test in English and in Spanish, a word-learning task comprised of nonsense words constructed using the phonotactic rules of English, Spanish, and Arabic, and a next-day word-retention test.
Word recognition did not differ across groups in English or Spanish. Learning and retention of nonsense words was highest for the children with normal hearing in all three languages. The children with unilateral and bilateral losses learned and recalled the English nonsense words as well as their normally hearing peers, but performance for the Spanish and Arabic nonsense words was significantly and similarly reduced by hearing loss in either ear.
Failure to learn and retain new words given a full auditory representation in one ear suggests that children with unilateral and bilateral hearing losses may share a unifying feature of impairment at the level of the central auditory system.