The salesperson is facing you. There is almost no background noise and you’re wearing your hearing devices. Since it’s just the two of you, this is shaping up to be an accessible conversation.
Then she starts to speak and you realize that all the bad speaking habits seemed to be rolled up in this woman. She speaks softly, her lips don’t move much and, worst of all, her words just don’t seem clear. You try to move your upper body a tiny bit closer to hers, to get your hearing aids closer to the source of sound – her mouth.
When that doesn’t work out well for you, there are two choices. One is to ask her to speak up and/or to repeat herself, probably more than once. The other is to bluff your way through the exchange.
Whichever route you take, this is not a match made in heaven: her manner of speaking pitted against your manner of hearing. You can’t change your hearing loss, so you must ask for help from her. And while she can help you by speaking up, she will probably easily slide back into her comfort zone – her whispery, cement-lips style of articulation. She can’t change her way of speaking without a lot of effort and the will to do it.
How can we improve our speech? In a Wiki article on how to develop a perfect speaking voice, the guidelines are simple: Speak up. Slow down. Enunciate. Practice deep breathing. Vary your pitch. It also helps to relax, because stress can cause our larynx (voice box) to tense up, resulting in less clear speech.
These good speaking habits are crucial when speaking with people with hearing loss because we need all the cues we can get and slurred or incomplete words and sentences make life tough for us. Many seniors complain that people don’t speak as clearly as they used to. This might have something to do with their level of hearing, but perhaps there is less emphasis on good speech and elocution in today’s busy, fast, and loud world. All I know is that I can hear and understand someone better if they articulate well.
I also know about my own poor articulation. For many years, I couldn’t hear myself as well as I do now. Because of my severe hearing loss, my speech was (and still is, at times) not as clear as it could be. I mispronounce words because I never heard them correctly in the first place and I also speak quickly, sometimes rushing too fast through my words. It was only after receiving a cochlear implant that I realized my father was the most articulate speaker I’d ever heard, next to the late actor Alan Rickman. When either of them spoke, I could hear every gorgeous consonant, every beautiful click of a ‘k’ or a ‘t’, every thrilling ‘s’ that made their speech easy to understand and enjoyable to listen to.
I was in my 20s before I knew that ‘pizza’ is not pronounced ‘peesa’, but ‘peet-sa’. I sometimes still say ‘yesser-day’ rather than ‘yesterday’. I say the word ‘month’ as ‘mu-uth’. And here’s a question. Is ‘clothes’ pronounced with the ‘th’ or is it actually uttered as ‘close’? My ‘s’ sounds are hit and miss, because it’s a high frequency sound that I didn’t start hearing until I started using hearing aids as an adult. I drop word endings, saying ‘leff’ instead of ‘left’. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering – “How has ANYONE ever understood me? I must sound like I’ve been eating ice cream and my tongue and lips are frozen!”
People with hearing loss are speechreaders. We get our information from what we can hear, but also by watching a speaker’s tongue, teeth, eyes and facial expressions. This might sound invasive, but we do it in a subtle way and it’s not always a conscious action. Because of this, clear speech is important. The following definition of clear speech when communicating with people with hearing loss comes from the website Care is There.
Clear Speech is the expression of every word, every sentence in a precise, accurate, and fully formed manner. It is not loud, monotone, artificial or exaggerated. It is:
- Accurate and fully formed
- Naturally slower (This happens automatically when you attempt to be clearer)
- Naturally louder (Your voice raises automatically when you attempt to be clearer)
- Lively, with a full range of voice intonation (tone) and stress on key words
- Characterized by pauses between all phrases and sentences
People with hearing loss will hear better when people speak better. It’s also true that we, the ones with hearing loss, will speak better when we hear ourselves better. Hearing aids and cochlear implants can help us with that. If everyone does their part, better communication will follow.