The Effect of Signal-to-Noise Ratio on Linguistic Processing in a Semantic Judgment Task: An Aging Study

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Aging effects on speech understanding in noise have primarily been assessed through speech recognition tasks. Recognition tasks, which focus on bottom-up, perceptual aspects of speech understanding, intentionally limit linguistic and cognitive factors by asking participants to only repeat what they have heard. On the other hand, linguistic processing tasks require bottom-up and top-down (linguistic, cognitive) processing skills and are, therefore, more reflective of speech understanding abilities used in everyday communication. The effect of signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) on linguistic processing ability is relatively unknown for either young (YAs) or older adults (OAs).


To determine if reduced SNRs would be more deleterious to the linguistic processing of OAs than YAs, as measured by accuracy and reaction time in a semantic judgment task in competing speech.

Research Design:

In the semantic judgment task, participants indicated via button press whether word pairs were a semantic Match or No Match. This task was performed in quiet, as well as, +3, 0, -3, and -6 dB SNR with two-talker speech competition.

Study Sample:

Seventeen YAs (20-30 yr) with normal hearing sensitivity and 17 OAs (60-68 yr) with normal hearing sensitivity or mild-to-moderate sensorineural hearing loss within age-appropriate norms.

Data Collection and Analysis:

Accuracy, reaction time, and false alarm rate were measured and analyzed using a mixed design analysis of variance.


A decrease in SNR level significantly reduced accuracy and increased reaction time in both YAs and OAs. However, poor SNRs affected accuracy and reaction time of Match and No Match word pairs differently. Accuracy for Match pairs declined at a steeper rate than No Match pairs in both groups as SNR decreased. In addition, reaction time for No Match pairs increased at a greater rate than Match pairs in more difficult SNRs, particularly at -3 and -6 dB SNR. False-alarm rates indicated that participants had a response bias to No Match pairs as the SNR decreased. Age-related differences were limited to No Match pair accuracies at -6 dB SNR.


The ability to correctly identify semantically matched word pairs was more susceptible to disruption by a poor SNR than semantically unrelated words in both YAs and OAs. The effect of SNR on this semantic judgment task implies that speech competition differentially affected the facilitation of semantically related words and the inhibition of semantically incompatible words, although processing speed, as measured by reaction time, remained faster for semantically matched pairs. Overall, the semantic judgment task in competing speech elucidated the effect of a poor listening environment on the higher order processing of words.

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