by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady recently asked me, “What is speech discrimination? How does it relate to hearing loss?”

Hearing loss is the result of damage to your ears. As a result, a person with a hearing loss needs more volume in order to hear the sounds that people with normal hearing can hear.

In contrast, speech discrimination is a measure of how well you understand what you hear when speech is loud enough to hear comfortably.

Audiologists measure speech discrimination in percent. If your discrimination scores are 100%, you understand everything you hear. At the other end of the spectrum, 0% discrimination means you can’t understand a single word that is spoken, no matter how loud it is.

Unfortunately, speech discrimination and hearing loss generally go hand in hand. For example, the last time I had my hearing tested, my hearing loss stands at 75 dB (a severe loss). Fortunately my speech discrimination is still relatively good at 80%. This means that, on the average, I understand 4 of every 5 words that are spoken if the volume is loud enough. That fifth word, however, just sounds like so much gibberish. This is one of the reasons I don’t depend on my hearing alone, but speechread the person at the same time. As a result, I have more difficulty understanding a person on the phone because I can’t speechread them.

If you have a hearing loss and your discrimination is good (80% or higher), typically you will find hearing aids very useful. However, if your discrimination is poor (below 40%), hearing aids will just make louder gibberish and thus are basically a waste of money.