When Strangers Speak: A Hearing Loss Challenge

If I want to understand speech, I have to hear it, or see it, or use an exquisitely-performed marriage of the two.  How I decide on the ratio of hearing-to-seeing depends on the speaker and the medium.

For example, the telephone uses 100% hearing because I do well with the voice coming directly into my ear, and with the volume control standing by.  But when I’m watching TV, I must use closed captions at the same time as I watch and listen to the actors, making it two parts seeing to one part hearing.  I control the process; I put all the elements in place – captioning, sound, and a clear picture – and then hold my nose and jump feet first into understanding what’s being said.  Generally it works out well, because I’m a very good speechreader especially with people whose speech patterns are familiar to me.

But when strangers speak, my speechreading success rate goes down because I have no control over the elements.

Speechreading is the ability to understand a spoken message through observing the movements of a person’s lips, jaw, tongue and teeth, interpreting facial expressions and body language, and knowing the context of what’s being discussed.

It sounds exhausting, and sometimes it is.  After a long day of focusing, visually and furiously, on what’s being said, people with hearing loss can become exhausted.  Speechreading is a multi-faceted process – and a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

It’s easiest with people we know, such as family or friends or workmates.  But when I’m in new surroundings, which is often, or conversing with people who speak differently than what I’m used to, which is frequently, understanding the speech of strangers can be challenging.  And it’s not always clear if the difficulty lies in hearing the bits of speech delivered in a different accent – or whether the words themselves are new to me.

This week, visiting with family in California, my daughter-in-law Kristina and I were discussing her spirited 3 ½ year old son. Actually, ‘spirited’ was my word, her choice was different.

He’s being onree. 

Uh, he’s being – what?

ON-ree. (Blank face from me.)  ON-REE!

I’m not getting it – spell it for me.

O-R-N-…

Oh, ornery!

Even though I had the context (her child’s spirited behavior), and am familiar with Kristina’s speech pattern, the American pronunciation delivered in her slight accent was different enough (to my Canadian ears) to render the word incomprehensible.  And she had raised her voice because we both assumed that my hearing loss was causing the communication glitch.

And usually it is, when delivered by someone with an unfamiliar speech pattern. But now that I know the word ornery, how it sounds in American, I’ll understand it next time I hear it.  That’s another component of speechreading skill – learning the sound and the look of new words.  (And really, what other word could I mistake it for?  What other English word sounds likes on-ree? Unless perhaps the phrase ‘on three’, as when nurses are about to lift you onto a gurney on the count of three.  There’s also the French name ‘Henri’, but unless we are talking about little French kids, onree has only one meaning in our family.)

But when strangers speak to us, the people with hearing loss, all bets are off.  Sometimes we do fine, sometimes not.  But if their words aren’t as clear as spring water, we either piece things together quickly, or utter one of our favorite words, the one that melts off our tongue like butter on a bun – pardon?

In certain situations, we can guess what strangers are going to say.  Arriving at the airport, the ticket agent says something that’s longer than ‘hello’ and her voice rises at the end, indicating a question.  But she could be asking ‘And how are you, today?’ OR ‘And where are you going today?’  I usually answer ‘Fine, thank you’, because if she can’t look at my ticket and tell where I’m flying, then she’s in the wrong job.  Besides, I travel a lot and I know the routine.

Most strangers-with-accents are speechreadable if they articulate their consonants  – which give meaning to speech just as vowels provide the power – similarly to native English speakers (English being the language I speak).  On occasion I’ve struggled to speechread a speaker only to discover that he was speaking Korean or Portuguese or some other language.  On the other hand, my family finds it hilarious when, watching a TV show, I ask ‘is that person speaking English?’ Sometimes the accents and speech formation are so different that it  looks and sounds like another language.  In my 20’s, I decided to resume studying French, which I had loved in school.  I quit the lessons after two weeks; I knew my hearing was getting worse because I had trouble speechreading the teacher, let alone the other participants whose French was abominable. How to speechread merci when it came out ‘Marcey’, or vous when pronounced ‘vooze’?

So what do we do, as people with hearing loss who use speechreading in daily conversations, when conversing with strangers?  The same as we normally do:  identify as having a hearing loss, have the speaker face us and ask for repeats when we need them.  Our motto should be Verify and Clarify:  “Just to be clear, you said that my boarding gate is over there to the left?”

When strangers speak, we want to speak with them.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this written article, it so fits or describes my communication barriers. I live in a hearing world, however, I ve decided a few years ago, not to pretend anymore. I use to laugh and smile along with anyone even when I did not understand a thing. Now Im comfortable enough not to, yet, people take it out of context but that`s okay. I m more comfortable in my own skin, took me 48 years to figure it out. Sometimes I will tell them what I thought what I heard, we all laugh together.

  2. I used the Hearing Loss Tactic, using my best speech and lipreading skills, trying to fake that I had overcome the handicap of deafness. It works OK for small talks. But it failed me in critical situations. Then my requests to write were often refused, for they could not believe that I could not hear and that their speaking was the problem of me understanding them. Only a late deafened person taught me the Anti-Hearing-Loss Tactic. This proved much more successful than the tactics you have been proposing, namely the Silent Tactic.

    The Silent Tactic consists of starting with writing accompanied by a few gestures, conveying my inability to hear. No speaking at all! That way, the hearing counterpart has been set up to treat me as a deaf person and cooperates with me, replying in writing. This goes for a number of exchanges. Then I would start to vocalize “yes”, “no”, and other short one word replies. Further exchanges later, my spoken responses get longer and I accepted their oral communication, yet asking him to write whenever I could not lipread him. No resistance to fall back to writing. The same whenever I see furrowing of his eye brows, I write down what I spoke.

    This Silent Tactic borrowing from the “Deaf and Dumb” from anno 1900 proves the best with the side effect of making hearing person more accepting deaf people as they are, thus more human, than insisting on speaking, lipreading, and listening with faulty hearing. just this strategy makes communication and interaction more difficult, not only for deafies, but for those with very good speech and partial hearing.

    Hartmut

  3. I agree with you. I have to be able to see the word visually, as in print. Your example about “ornery” is perfect. If it sounds slightly different, I do not hear the correct sound and don’t understand the meaning. This makes going into a store a really trying task. It’s almost as if I need someone who can speak clearly and enunciate perfectly. Seldom do I find someone with those qualities. Even if I am lucky enough to find someone I can understand, there are still background noises, visual distractions, other things on my mind, etc.
    I have to use closed captioning for movies to get the gist of what’s going on. I can struggle without them but miss out on a lot. If there are background noises, as is often the case with today’s movies, the speech can be totally lost.
    Radio can be the best medium with a single person speaking clearly. That’s a joy for me. But once a second voice is introduced and conversation takes place, then understanding diminishes.

  4. Great blog Gael and a timely one for me. This entire speechreading issue was, is, one of the reasons I told my hubby that after traveling full time in our motorhome for four months I was burnt out and done! New places were fine but continuos new faces (and voices) to speechread, not so much. I am still not sure he “gets it” I’ll have him read this. You state it better than I am able.

    Greatly enjoy your musings.
    Warm Regards and tail wags from Hearing Dog Cherelle.

  5. This may open up a can of worms here, but I’m wondering about people who can only understand strangers though speech reading. I was such a good speech reader that I was almost completely unaware that I was doing it. (Thank you brain for this automatic feature) It wasn’t until my cochlear implant was switched on that I realized I was hearing with my eyes for the past 25 years. Although my tonal loss was in moderate to mild range (35db pure tone average), my single syllable word scores were less than 10%. Enter the diagnosis of Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder (ANSD), a newly identified condition found in about 15% of newborns who fail the newborn hearing test. Recent studies are showing it far more common in adults than previously thought. There is a specialized neuronic cell in the cochlea that sends timing information to the brain. I apparently lost all of mine in my early thirties and thus my ear lost synchrony with my brain. Without timing information you can’t hear gaps between words or the micro-gaps in words themselves. The point I’m trying to make is, candidacy for cochlear implants now allows for a 60% or less word recognition score with best fit hearing aids (mine was less than 10%). If you have to speech read most of the time, chances are you’re a candidate, so why aren’t more people looking into CI’s? Less than 12 hours after I was switched on, I was listening to an interview on the car radio and heard every word. The first in 25 years! I understand strangers now without speech reading and actually seek them out. Now with improved surgical techniques and flexible arrays, residual hearing can be preserved…at least partially. This makes me wonder why more people don’t take advantage of this technology if they are candidates. I think back to all those years in the prime of my life struggling to understand speech, and wonder how different it would have been for me to have had a CI early on.

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