We Hear Better When People Speak Better

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.

 

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.

10 Comments

  1. As a lifelong lipreader (I began losing my hearing in childhood), who doesn’t have the benefit of technology, I know all too well that this skill simply doesn’t work all of the time, with every person. Clear speakers and good communicators are wonderful (with some people I don’t even have to tell them I’m deaf until they look down or away while speaking, and then they say, “I never would have known you were deaf unless you told me.”), but there are all levels of speakers that fall short of my understanding. That isn’t anyone’s fault, not the speaker, and not mine. I didn’t ask for hearing loss. When I know I’m doing all I can, I may ask the speaker to speak slower and clearer… that’s not making the speaker responsible for my lack, it’s simply asking for what I need in way that doesn’t make the speaker feel as if it’s their fault.

    However, I find that taking control from the get-go always works best. When I first come in contact with people, I say: “I’m a pretty good lipreader, but it doesn’t always work, so if we have issues you may need to write to me.” In that one sentence I’ve covered everything the person needs to know-I’m going to try to understand your speech, but if I can’t, please write to me.

    It’s also good to note that we who are more adept at lipreading, due to being hardwired that way from childhood hearing loss (though even hearing people have a degree of lipreading skill), can learn to lipread someone who is not a clear speaker. The more time I spend with someone who I have trouble understanding, the more I learn how to lipread them.

    One last note on speakers who work at becoming clearer for those with different communication needs: Improving your diction spills over to everyone you communicate with, and you can never be too clear of a communicator, so everyone benefits!

  2. Good diction is certainly extremely important for my own speech comprehension. I can understand many people very well if they speak clearly and can be lipread. But if other people swallow their words or speak in a monotone (or use accented speech), my speech understanding plummets.

    People with significant disabilities will have limitations on how much they can adapt to other people’s differences, no matter how much they try. This particular blog posting was showcasing how much it would help if people would strive to speak clearly. Communication is a two-way street. Others need to understand how they can improve what they do, too, in order to communicate more effectively.

  3. Thanks for the article and for recognizing that sometimes it’s HARD for people to change their speech habits. I’m hard of hearing but have poor speech habits myself. This is (I think) partly because my own hearing was slightly subnormal, and also because I became discouraged about speaking more clearly because several significant adults were very hard of hearing couldn’t respond to my efforts to be heard. It’s interesting that I might still be able to improve my speech – those old habits are hard to break.

  4. THAT’s a good idea. Push the fact that we don’t hear, off on others. Blame the SPEAKER, not ourselves, the one trying to understand a perfectly healthy person who is just being themselves. SHAME ON YOU. It’s people like YOU that make that gap, that CHASM, between The Hearing and The Deaf impossible to bridge. JOB WELL DONE, keep it up.

    1. Maybe I didn’t write this article to be clear enough. I do not put the onus on hearing people, and if you read other articles I’ve written, you’ll see that one of my main messages is that we, the people with hearing loss, have to take responsibility for our own hearing success. That includes wearing our assistive devices (if we use them), and letting other people know our needs. It takes two to communicate, it’s a two-way street. Thank you for writing.

      1. No, Gael you wrote very clearly. There are those who choose to speak righteously no matter what.
        Yes, I agree with you. Learning new words or words in another language is very difficult now, with a moderate hearing loss, especially as most people as you say do not pronounce all letters nor even attempt good conditions for communication by speaking, clearly, looking at you. They mumble and turn away while making noise over the blasting “background ” music.

  5. I’ve always had a breathy voice. Sometimes, even with my hearing aids in, it’s hard to judge my own voice, because I try and compensate for how I perceive all the noise around me. When I can’t, I’ll still speak too quietly, for fear of taking way too loudly, or, I’ll try to project, and end up talking from the back of my throat, which gives me a deaf accent, and then people have difficulty understanding me. . I can’t win, it seems.

  6. Some hearing people never will get it , please can you speak up. What ? Ugh here I go again.will go to bookstore soon to get the book by Gael Hanna

    1. Hi Michael, you can order my book from any online bookstore, or your local bookstore can order it in for you. “The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss” . Thank you for writing and I hope you enjoy the book.

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