Cortical development is dependent on stimulus-driven learning. The absence of sensory input from birth, as occurs in congenital deafness, affects normal growth and connectivity needed to form a functional sensory system, resulting in deficits in oral language learning. Cochlear implants bypass cochlear damage by directly stimulating the auditory nerve and brain, making it possible to avoid many of the deleterious effects of sensory deprivation. Congenitally deaf animals and children who receive implants provide a platform to examine the characteristics of cortical plasticity in the auditory system. In this review, we discuss the existence of time limits for, and mechanistic constraints on, sensitive periods for cochlear implantation and describe the effects of multimodal and cognitive reorganization that result from long-term auditory deprivation.