Father Jan Grotkowski (left) takes part in his first hearing exercise with Charles Daehler. The good father

When we listen, but don’t really hear

Tomatis-based techniques are drug-free methods to improve hearing comprehension

The sermon is the make-it or break-it moment for the spiritual leader.

Will the homily fill parishioners with the good will of the Lord or will Mr. Grey in the second pew yawn, stretch and nod off again?

Delivering soul-inspiring sermons week after week is tough work, but imagine how difficult that can be when English isn’t your first language? It doesn’t get any easier when the language difficulty is compounded by an Eastern European accent which confounds many English-speaking-only Canadians.

That’s the dilemma for Father Jan Grotkowski, a native of Poland.

“When I’m asked about the accent, I tell them I’m from Nova Scotia and that’s good enough for some people,” says Grotkowski, who clearly enjoys a good joke. “But some others say, ‘No, tell me where you’re really from.’”

Father Grotkowski was previously working at a parish in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and was recently reassigned to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Campbell River. He has an excellent command of the English language, but he also understands his accent is a barrier to communicating effectively.

“I want to speak it clearly and as best I can. That will take some work,” he admits.

That’s why Father Grotkowksi is visiting the Campbell River home of Charles Daehler, an electrician by trade who’s also been working on listening therapy programs using techniques developed by the late Alfred Tomatis.

Tomatis was an internationally known otolaryngologist and inventor who developed theories on hearing and listening. The Frenchman started out trying to help professional singers based on the idea that errant hearing is the root cause of a variety of ailments. His listening test and his “electronic ear” therapy were designed to alleviate these problems without the use of drugs.

Daehler has been studying Tomatis’ techniques for the past seven years. His studies have taken him across Europe and he’s currently associated with the Bosco Centre in Coquitlam which has clinics worldwide.

“I’m not a psychologist and I don’t pretend to be a doctor…it’s what I bring to society, a little bit,” he says.

Over the past few years, Daehler has used the listening techniques and training to help children overcome learning barriers due to attention deficit disorders and autistic-related conditions.

“Some kids can’t hear high frequencies and they have trouble distinguishing the words,” he says. “They’re lost most of the time because they don’t have good hearing and they can’t focus.”

As an example, he recently worked with a nine-year-old whose mother was at wit’s end because her child, “hears but he can’t listen.” But after several weeks of listening training, the boy listens and understands, and is more focussed in his school work and other duties.

“All of a sudden he wakes up into a world where he can listen,” says Daehler.

There’s nothing wrong with Father Grotkowski’s listening skills. The difficulty, so to speak, is his “Polish ear,” so he’s come to Daehler’s listening studio after the two met through a mutual friend, Dr. Lucien Larre.

Tomatis’ belief was that language begins in the womb when the fetus hears the frequency and rhythm of the mother speaking. It’s like background noise in the womb, but the belief is it has a dramatic effect afterwards on children’s ability to learn their “native tongue.”

So Father Grotkowski is here to train for English. There’s not much sweating involved, but it clearly takes all the priest’s focus to read out loud from the book in English.

He knows and understands the words, it’s just a struggle and there’s very little rhythm as he continues through the passage.

“You can take English course, but it’s not going to give you an English ear,” Daehler observes.

The teacher then asks the student to try again, but this time slips specialized headphones on Father Grotkowski who speaks into a microphone.

This time the priest can hear his own voice, but there’s also something else going on.

Using one of the Tomatis devices, Daehler is able to transfer English language rhythm and frequency through a tiny speaker attached to the headphones and sits on the crown of Grotkowski’s head.

What happens next is far short of a miracle, but Father Grotkowski’s English speaking voice begins to lose the guttural Polish accent and the rhythm of his words sound far more natural.

“Amazing,” he says afterwards shaking his head in disbelief. “Amazing!”

To further illustrate the effectiveness of the exercise, Daehler has the good father read out loud in Polish, and then switches the frequency and rhythm of the headphones to the Dutch language.

Again, the effect is immediate as Grotkowski’s speech slows and the rhythm goes off too. He finally stops, “It’s like I’m being constantly interrupted. It’s interfering!”

Whether you’re learning a new language or you’re a child with learning difficulties – whose inner ear muscles aren’t functioning as they should be – the Tomatis-based exercises are designed to improve hearing comprehension.

Daehler likes the fact it’s drug-free therapy and has seen the benefit on children, particularly those with attention deficit issues.

Today though, Father Grotkowski has received his first session and he’s ready for more, because he knows that good communication is the key to being a good spiritual leader.

“What is your prescription for me?” he asks.

“Thirty hours to ‘open’ the ear and then 30 hours of English integration,” Daehler replies, “and it will make a huge difference to you.”

Father Grotkowski hopes so and so do his parishioners.