by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man wrote:
During the past few years I’ve found that understanding speech on the telephone has become increasingly difficult. I wonder if this issue has been addressed.
1) Are there certain types of phones that make this more of a problem (i.e. portable phones)?
2) Are people generally speaking much more rapidly, contributing to increased difficulty?
3) I’ve found that people with unfamiliar accents are a particular problem.
I’d appreciate your thoughts on this subject.
The most likely reason for having trouble understanding speech—on the phone, or in person—is that you have a high-frequency hearing loss. Since most of the “intelligence” of speech is in the higher frequencies, if you have a high-frequency loss, you hear people talking just fine, but you can’t always understand what they are saying.
What can make a difference between phones is that some phones have better high-frequency sound than others so you would hear better on them. There are special amplified phones that can emphasize the higher frequencies to help people like you hear (and understand) on the phone better. However, you need to be aware that phones all cut off somewhere around 3,000 to 3,500 Hz., so you’ll never be able to hear frequencies higher than that no matter which phone you try.
In addition, some people mumble or don’t talk directly into the receiver, which sure doesn’t help. When you have any hearing loss, it takes your brain longer to decode speech, so when people talk fast, or mumble, or have accents, you miss more as your brain vainly struggles with all this extra processing and just can’t keep up.
Finally, you should be aware that high-frequency hearing loss sneaks up on you so you are often not even aware of how much you are really missing. You should go to an audiologist and have your hearing evaluated. You might be surprised how much hearing loss you actually have.