Incidental learning is learning that occurs through observation, rather than direct teaching. Incidental listening, is the ability to overhear what is being said around us, and learn from what we have heard.
It is not uncommon for parents of preschool aged children to show surprise when they hear their children using new words or phrases that they have never “taught” them. I have heard parents saying “How did she learn that, I never taught her that word/expression?” This is incidental listening. Children with normal hearing have the ability to overhear the language around them and, thus, learn more than what is being “taught” to them. They might hear their peers using slang words and pick up these words to use themselves. Not only does this skill require a certain level of cognitive development, but more importantly, it takes the ability to hear at a distance.
The normal hearing human ear has the ability to hear sound from a distance, depending on how loud the sound is and the amount of background noise present. The circle of space within which one can hear is called the “listening bubble”. Children with normal hearing have the ability to hear sound coming from a greater distance than children with hearing loss.
While the technology of hearing aids and cochlear implants has come a long way and continues to improve, it still does not mimic the ability of the human ear to listen from a distance. The child with hearing loss is only able to hear sounds within a close distance, even when wearing cutting edge technology. To better understand the “listening bubble”, think of your child as standing in the center of a bubble. Any sound that is made within the bubble is a sound that your child can hear. All sounds outside the bubble can not be heard. For every child, the size of the listening bubble differs. Knowing the size of your child’s listening bubble is very important.
This ability to only hear within the listening bubble is why children with hearing loss, even those with excellent speech perception using their devices, often continue to struggle keeping up with their peers. The impact of a smaller listening bubble can be seen in academic areas (missing vocabulary and concepts that they are not overhearing), as well as in the social realm (not hearing social interactions or slang).
How Can You Help?
- Work with your audiologist to use technology to the maximum extent. Discuss program changes that might make listening at a distance easier. Especially for older children and adults, this can be creating different programs for listening in different situations or learning how to make adjustments to the microphone sensitivity in certain settings.
- With very young children, it is important to spend as much time as possible inside your child’s listening bubble. As it is only what you say within that distance that you’d child will hear and learn.
- Use of an FM system can also help, as the child can hear the voice of the the person wearing the transmitter even when outside the listening bubble (when in FM range).