Graduate Center Honors Psycholinguist Susan Nittrouer
Alumna dedicates her career to help children overcome language-learning difficulties such as hearing loss and dyslexia.
This spring, the Graduate Center’s Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences program recognized Susan Nittrouer with its Distinguished Alumni Award. The developmental psycholinguist has devoted her long career to understanding how children learn language.
“I’m honored,” said Nittrouer, a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Florida, and director of the school’s Hearing Research Center. “If I’ve been successful at all, it's a tribute to the program I came out of.”
Nittrouer graduated with a Ph.D. in Speech and Hearing Sciences from the Graduate Center in 1985. Since then, her research has largely centered on how children learn language and what goes wrong when they face challenges, including dyslexia and hearing loss. Nittrouer has worked for years to develop intervention strategies that are more accessible to children with language-learning difficulties.
From a young age, Nittrouer had a keen interest in how children communicate. It began with her own articulation disorder, which set in by the time she was in kindergarten, and she struggled to communicate through her early years in school.
But her world changed when she saw the movie The Miracle Worker, based on the true story of Helen Keller, who was deaf-blind and mute, and Annie Sullivan, who taught her how to communicate. Starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the movie sparked her curiosity about how children, especially those with hearing loss, learn language.
“I thought, deafness is really something,” the professor said. “The idea of being able to teach deaf children and give them language just seemed so remarkable to me.”
Around the same time, her father, an electrical engineer, began working on a device for Hallowell Davis, a physiologist at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis.
“He got the idea that if you put a sound in the ear, you might be able to record from the cortex and see if the sound was reaching the brain,” she said, referring to Davis. “He needed this particular piece of equipment to build the machine. So, my father became involved in that.”
Her father helped to design the auditory evoked-response audiometer, a small computer that measured electrical impulses in the auditory cortex, and a forerunner to modern hearing tests. The timing of all this — seeing the movie and her father’s work on the audiometer — was a sheer coincidence, said Nittrouer. “It was like all the forces working together,” she said.
Nittrouer attended Smith College, where she earned a master’s in education of the deaf. While there, she met Arthur Boothroyd, director of research and clinical services at the Clarke School for the Deaf.
“Arthur is the person who introduced me to research,” said Nittrouer, and when he moved from Smith College to CUNY, he encouraged her to transfer there for her Ph.D. studies. “He got the research itch in me.”
At the CUNY Graduate Center, she met another mentor, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, a well-known scholar of speech perception and the evolution of language.
From Boothroyd, she learned to do research in hearing science, and from Studdert-Kennedy, she learned psycholinguistics. “Because of their strong support, bringing hearing and language and speech together, I was able to work in an amalgam of all those areas,” she told the Graduate Center.
Following a post-doctoral fellowship at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, she began her research career at the Boys Town National Research Hospital, studying how children learn language.
Nittrouer went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher of deaf children. She taught at the Learning Center for Deaf Children, the Beverly School for the Deaf, and the Clarke School for the Deaf. She later worked as a professor and researcher at Utah State University, Ohio State University, and the University of Florida, among other institutions.
Decades after watching The Miracle Worker, her passion for understanding how children develop speech and language is evident. “Our ability to communicate with language is uniquely human,” she said, noting “our auditory systems are not different from any other mammalian auditory system.”
And yet, she explained, human speech and communication involve sophisticated perceptual strategies and highly skilled motor production. “We're Olympians when it comes to organizing motor control in the service to speech production,” she said. “That so many children learn language is quite a feat, but a small barrier is enough to disrupt this language learning.”
Even a small disruption can snowball into a language deficit, said Nittrouer, premature birth and repeated ear infections being examples. “Human language is a sophisticated, complex system that is nonetheless fragile,” she said.
Her advice to students entering the field is to expand their skill sets, whenever possible. “Don't be narrow,” she said. “You don't really know in the moment what knowledge and what skills are going to be useful later. So, expand your horizons, and build your tool set of skills as much as you can.”
Nittrouer is the author of Early Development of Children with Hearing Loss, published by Plural Publishing. Her research is published in more than 100 papers, focused on speech perception in persons with hearing differences, and development in children with normal hearing.
In 2022, Nittrouer was honored by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) for her distinguished contributions to the discipline of communication sciences and disorders.
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