To someone experiencing hearing loss for the first time, it can feel as if sounds are vanishing in a totally random fashion – as if an amped-up teenager is playing Whack-a-mole with the alphabet in your brain.
But it’s not random at all. Depending on the type of hearing loss, audiologists can predict which sounds will disappear first. Once you understand why, you’ll be better equipped to spot early signs of hearing loss.
A Little Audio Lesson
The first thing to understand is that different alphabet sounds have different audio frequencies, ranging along a spectrum from about 250 hertz (the sound of a deep
phonemes like Z, J, M—you can hear them buzzing if you say them to yourself!) to 4000 to 6000 hertz (the sound of a high-pitched phonemes like F, S, TH). So if you think about different people having different voice frequencies – James Earl Jones, Gilbert Gottfried, David Beckham, Zooey Deschanel, Jennifer Tilley – you can also imagine the letters of the alphabet with voices of varying pitches, high or low. You can visualize this the way the audiologists do, with a chart called the “Speech Banana.”
But what about those letter sounds that don’t have vowels? That’s where this gets interesting (and annoying).
Sibilant and strident sounds are the ones you make when you press the tip of your tongue (in varying shapes) to the roof of your mouth (in varying places) and blow: S, SH, F, J, TH, CH, ZH, and so on. These are the sounds at the highest end of the spectrum, at the right end of the speech banana, with the ess-y sounds slightly higher than the eff-y ones.
And what do we know about most hearing loss? That’s right. The higher sounds go first.
The Sounds That Vanish Soonest
“It’s an unfortunate coincidence,” says Dr. Payal Anand, director of the audiology clinic at UCSF Medical center. “S is not only the most frequently occurring sound in the English language – it also provides more grammatical information than any other sound. It can change the meaning of a lot of words, so it’s important for people to detect that sound.”
For instance, the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence” has more S-sounds than a snake den. For folks with the most common kind of age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, it can sound like the track is skipping, and those two boys from Queens are either singing about the “ounds of ilence,” the “foundf of filenf,” or the “thoundth of thilenthe!”
For instance, the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence” has more S-sounds than a snake den. For folks with the most common kind of age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, it can sound like the track is skipping, and those two boys from Queens are singing about the “ounds of ilence.”
Actually, you probably know the song well enough to fill in the blanks. But that’s not always the case. An acquaintance of mine, who struggles to hear sibilants, admits that on an A.M. business call, after he asked, “How are you doing?” he thought the voice on the other end of the line replied, “Folgering on” – making a joke about the brand of coffee he was drinking. In truth, the response had been “Soldiering on.”
Even the distinction between a basic “yes” and “no” can get muddy when you can’t grasp the sibilants being said. The net result is that in conversation, you can spend a lot of time filling in blanks with varying degrees of success. You might do better if the people talking to you speak slowly, so your brain can process and correct for these blanks. But that gets annoying for you and your conversational cohort.
Reclaiming Your Lost Sounds
Once you identify your lost sibilant sheep, you can get checked by an audiologist and work on solutions. For some, that may be a hearing aid. In that situation, Anand warns that at first, “lots of people have the opposite problem – too much sibilance, sounding hissy or tinny because their brain has gotten used to not hearing these sounds.” She gave the example of a patient who got hearing aids for the first time and was suddenly startled at the sound of her keys in her apartment door. By the end of the first week operating under the new hearing conditions, her brain had adjusted to having those sounds back, and she no longer noticed it.
“The brain is very sought-after real estate,” Anand added. “If an area isn’t being used, someone will move in and use it.” If you want your S-hearing brain cells back, you have to kick out the squatters and re-claim that space.
This is where our our own app, SonicCloud, can make a difference for you, and in some ways might make it even easier to talk on your cellphone than to depend on hearing aids when you’re face to face. Since we’ve all got different mouths and teeth, some of us have more pronounced sibilant sounds, while someone else might have a thoft lithp. SonicCloud allows you to create a unique voiceprint of how you pick up sounds and then adjusts the amplification and shaping for different people’s voices, so you can be sure you won’t accidentally go to the grocery store and get sweetbreads instead of wheat bread. That’d be a whole different sandwich.