New Research – Hearing Loss & The Ability To Identify Familiar Voices

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Research at the University of Montreal reveals that while advanced technologies are able to capture a large amount of speech information, BUT... What happens to our ability to recognize familiar voices when we suffer from hearing loss? This research demonstrates the amazing power of our hearing to filter and differentiate all at the same time. Electronic speech recognition systems are good but, particularly in settings with background noise, the ability for human hearing to pick out a familiar voice is nothing short of miraculous. Can you identify these words?

"_er_i _eau_ou_"

Part of being able to identify a particular person's voice is being able to understand what they are saying. We identify accents by the different ways we pronounce the words, the way we emphasize certain letters. The way we clip some sounds short and draw out others. The most common forms of hearing loss, Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) and Sensorineural hearing loss can make this impossible. Hearing aids can help to recover the ability to understand words and the ability to identify a familiar speaker and attach the emotional meaning that is part of human communication.

Hearing loss is about more than just volume. Communication is about much more than just the words. Hearing aids help reconnect you with people.

More than 99% of the time, two words are enough for people with normal hearing to distinguish the voice of a close friend or relative amongst other voices, says the University of Montreal's Julien Plante-Hébert.

His study, presented at the 18th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, involved playing recordings to Canadian French speakers, who were asked to recognize on multiple trials which of the ten male voices they heard was familiar to them. “Merci beaucoup” turned out to be all they needed to hear.

Plante-Hébert is a voice recognition doctoral student at the university's Department of Linguistics and Translation. “The auditory capacities of humans are exceptional in terms of identifying familiar voices. At birth, babies can already recognize the voice of their mothers and distinguish the sounds of foreign languages,” Plante-Hébert said.

To evaluate these auditory capacities, he created a series of voice “lineups,” a technique inspired by the well-known visual identification procedure used by police, in which a group of individuals sharing similar physical traits are placed before a witness. “A voice lineup is an analogous procedure in which several voices with similar acoustic aspects are presented. In my study, each voice lineup contained different lengths of utterances varying from one to eighteen syllables. Familiarity between the target voice and the identifier was defined by the degree of contact between the interlocutors.” Forty-four people aged 18-65 participated.

Plante-Hébert found that the participants were unable to identify short utterances regardless of their familiarity with the person speaking. However, with utterances of four or more syllables, such as “merci beaucoup,” the success rate was nearly total for very familiar voices. “Identification rates exceed those currently obtained with automatic systems," he said. Indeed, in his opinion, the best speech recognition systems are much less efficient than auditory system at best, there is a 92% success rate compared to over 99.9% for humans. Moreover, in a noisy environment, humans can exceed machine-based recognition because of our brain's ability to filter out ambient noise. “Automatic speaker recognition is in fact the least accurate biometric factor compared to fingerprints or face or iris recognition,” Plante-Hébert said.

“While advanced technologies are able to capture a large amount of speech information, only humans so far are able to recognize familiar voices with almost total accuracy," he concluded.

What really stands out is the ability to identify a familiar voice in only four syllables in this case in French “Merci beaucoup.” How might a person with even mild hearing loss do in a similar test? In the most common form of hearing loss we lose not only volume but also the ability to hear and differentiate high frequency sounds. In frequency terms, the first sounds we lose in the most common form of hearing loss are the sounds of the letters F, S (& soft C) and Th. In volume terms we lose letters K, P, H, G, Z, V, M, B, D, J, L and A along with Ph, Ch and Sh sounds.

To someone suffering even with only a mild hearing loss,
Merci Beaucoup would sound like: “_er_i _eau_ou_.”

This inability to hear and distinguish any part of the word not only makes understanding specific words impossible but also makes identifying the speaker impossible as well. So for example, someone suffering even mild hearing loss would find communicating over the phone very challenging and would be unlikely to be able to identify the speaker by voice.

We know that communication is more than just the letters and the words we use, but includes, tone, inflection, and emphasis as well as all the emotional associations that we tie to the sound of a specific person’s voice. An inability to make that emotional connection drains some of the power of the words and of the speaker. This is why irony and facetiousness can be problematic if not downright dangerous in text and email messages because all the verbal cues get stripped away.

How many times does a disjointed jumble of words and phrases suddenly make perfect sense when you realize the person on the phone is Jerry and not Murray?

So you can now better understand that communication for someone with hearing loss is about much more than just volume because for every one of us communication is about much more than just the words.

All of your relationships are based on communication. What happens to all of your relationships when it gets so hard to communicate? Get the help you need to live your life to the fullest & to reconnect with the people that make life worth living.

It is time to stop suffering... dealing with... and getting by... What does that get you? If you are concerned about hearing loss, for yourself or for someone important to you, get a thorough hearing test (always the first step) & learn more about Tinnitus, Hearing Loss, and Hearing Aids… contact your Audiologist or Hearing Health Care Professional at your nearby AccuQuest Hearing Centers.

Machines Have Nothing on Mum When It Comes to Listening


Source Newsroom: Universite de Montreal

What happens to our ability to recognize familiar voices when we suffer from hearing loss? Research demonstrates the amazing power of our hearing to filter and differentiate all at the same time.