The Advantage of Knowing the Talker

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Abstract

Background:

Many audiologists have observed a situation where a patient appears to understand something spoken by his or her spouse or a close friend but not the same information spoken by a stranger. However, it is not clear whether this observation reflects choice of communication strategy or a true benefit derived from the talker's voice.

Purpose:

The current study measured the benefits of long-term talker familiarity for older individuals with hearing impairment in a variety of listening situations.

Research Design:

In Experiment 1, we measured speech recognition with familiar and unfamiliar voices when the difficulty level was manipulated by varying levels of a speech-shaped background noise. In Experiment 2, we measured the benefit of a familiar voice when the background noise was other speech (informational masking).

Study Sample:

A group of 31 older listeners with high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss participated in the study. Fifteen of the participants served as talkers and 16 as listeners. In each case, the talkerlistener pair for the familiar condition represented a close, long-term relationship (spouse or close friend).

Data Collection and Analysis:

Speech-recognition scores were compared using controlled stimuli (lowcontext sentences) recorded by the study talkers. The sentences were presented in quiet and in two levels of speech-spectrum noise (Experiment 1) as well as in multitalker babble (Experiment 2). Repeated-measures analysis of variance was used to compare performance between the familiar and unfamiliar talkers, within and across conditions.

Results:

Listeners performed better when speech was produced by a talker familiar to them, whether that talker was in a quiet or noisy environment. The advantage of the familiar talker was greater in a more adverse listening situation (i.e., in the highest level of background noise) but was similar for speech-spectrum noise and multitalker babble.

Conclusions:

The present data support a frequent clinical observation: listeners can understand their spouse better than a stranger. This effect was present for all our participants and occurred under strictly controlled conditions in which the only possible cue was the voice itself, rather than under normal communicative conditions where listener accommodation strategies on the part of the talker may confound the measurable benefit. The magnitude of the effect was larger than shown for short-term familiarity in previous work. This suggests that older listeners with hearing loss who inherently operate under deficient auditory conditions can benefit from experience with the voice characteristics of a long-term communication partner over many years of a relationship.

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