Raise your hand if you have ever said or heard phrases such as, ‘Did you hear me, or are you deaf?,’ or
‘You look as deaf as my Aunt Erminia.’ These are, unfortunately, quite common expressions.
And what role does the language we use play in perpetuating or helping to overcome the stereotypes and stigma that still surround the topic of hearing and hearing loss?
In order to answer this question and to identify working guidelines, a research project was carried out in collaboration between the Research and Study Centre of the company Amplifon and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, thanks to Diversity & Inclusion Speaking (an organisation dedicated to creating awareness and conducting research on the subject of inclusive languages).
This is a project I am very proud of, precisely because of the attention I decided to dedicate to the words that make up those common words that we often pay less attention to than would be useful.
Let’s start with some numbers. Today hearing loss affects 7.3 million people (12% of the Italian population) and is destined to grow by 55% in the next 30 years, affecting 11 million people. If we add to these numbers the network of family and friends (which can be involved) we get a sense of the scope – in terms not only of numbers – of this phenomenon.
And yet, it’s still a little talked about topic. And this means that little is known about it: for example, how many people have heard of ‘hypoacusis’ or ‘presbyacusis,’ terms that refer, respectively, to hearing loss related to different causes, and hearing loss due specifically to ageing?
Talking about this so little or, rather, talking about it using this type of terminology, also perpetuates a sense of distance and stigma that a change in language could help to overcome.
The evidence from the research project titled ‘Le Parole del Sentire Comune’ (Commonly Heard Words) – conducted in 2 phases and coordinated by Prof. Claudia Manzi, Professor of Social Psychology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan – allows us to draw clear conclusions about these issues.
In the first research phase, the results of which have already been published in the prestigious international scientific journal The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, the issue of how hearing loss is represented in the media was examined by analysing over 650 articles published in print and on the internet in Italy over a period of 2 years.
What emerged is that the subject of age-related hearing loss (presbyacusis) is dealt with very little in the press, which focuses instead on issues related to deafness or, in general, to
hearing problems in younger generations.
Moreover, the textual analysis showed, explains Manzi, that ‘journalistic language is very different from colloquial language, preferring the use of a rich and articulated lexicon
where medical terms, which tend to be cold, prevail (e.g. patient, hearing loss, tinnitus, disorder, disease).’
The second phase aimed to understand if and how the technical/medical language used by the media could influence attitudes towards hearing loss and hearing solutions. The results were unequivocal: people show more favourable attitudes when they read an article on this topic written in colloquial, everyday language, rather than technical/medical language.
The study also aimed to analyse the role of the language used by the medical profession in addressing this topic.
Here’s the bottom line: when interacting with healthcare professionals, using technical language that includes medical words fosters positive attitudes toward the issue and possible solutions.
So, for those in the world of journalism who have the opportunity to reach a large segment of the population affected by the issue, the advice is to do so using words that bring people closer together and familiarise them, replacing ‘patient’ with ‘person,’ ‘disorder/disease’ with ‘condition,’ ‘hearing loss’ with ‘reduction/decline’ (not ‘loss’) of hearing.
For the medical profession, from which we expect more technical-medical language, it is preferable, instead, to use language that goes in this direction. And, for all the other people who find themselves making jokes about hearing poorly, let’s pause a little longer and ask ourselves if the joke is really funny. Or if, perhaps, it only
makes us laugh.