The Role of Talker/Vowel Change in Consonant Recognition with Hearing Loss

Ali Abavisani – aliabavi@illinois.edu
Jont B. Allen – jontalle@illinois.edu
Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
405 N Mathews Ave
Urbana, IL, 61801

Popular version of paper 1aPP
Presented Monday, May 13, 2019
177th ASA Meeting, Louisville, KY

Hearing loss can have serious impact on social life of individuals experiencing it. The effect of hearing loss becomes more complicated in environments such as restaurants, where the background noise is similar to speech. Although hearing aids in various designs, intend to address these issues, users complain about hearing aids performance in social situations, where they are mostly needed. Part of this problem refers to the nature of hearing aids, which do not use speech as part of design and fitting process. If we somehow incorporate speech sounds in
real life conditions into the fitting process of hearing aids, it may be possible to address most of the shortcomings that irritates the users.

There have been many studies on the features that are important in identification of speech sounds such as isolated consonant + vowel (CV) phones (i.e., meaningless speech sound).
Most of these studies ran experiments on normal hearing listeners, to identify the effects of different speech features in correct recognition. It turned out that manipulation of speech sounds, such as replacing a vowel, or amplifying/attenuating certain parts of sound in time-frequency domain, leads to identification of new speech sounds by the normal hearing listeners. One goal of current study is to investigate whether there are similar responses to such manipulations from listeners who have hearing loss.

We designed a speech-based test that may be utilized by audiologists to determine susceptible speech phones for each individual with hearing loss. The design includes a perceptual measure that corresponds to speech understanding in background noise, where the noise is similar to
speech. The perceptual measure identifies the noise level in which the speech sound is recognizable by an average normal hearing listener, at least with 90% accuracy. The speech sounds within the test include combinations of 14 consonants {p, t, k, f, s, S, b, d, g, v, z, Z, m, n} and four vowels {A, ae, I, E}, to cover different features that are present in speech. All the test sounds have pre-evaluated to make sure they are recognizable by normal hearing listeners in the noise conditions of the experiments. Two sets of sounds named T$_1$ and T$_2$ having same consonant-vowel combinations of sounds but different talkers, had been presented to the listeners at their most comfortable level of hearing (not depending to their specific hearing loss). The two speech sets had distinct perceptual measure. When two sounds with similar perceptual measure, and with the same consonant but different vowel are presented to a listener with hearing loss, their response can show us how their particular hearing function, may cause errors in understanding this particular speech sound, and why this function led to recognition of a specific sound instead of the presented speech. Also, presenting sounds from the two sets constitute the means to compare the role of perceptual measure (which is based on normal hearing listeners), on listeners with hearing loss. When the recognition score for a particular listener increases as the result of a change in presented speech sounds, it is an indication on how the fitting process of hearing aid should follow, regarding that particular (listener, speech sound) pair.

While the study shows that improvement or degradation of the speech sounds are listener dependent, on average 85% of sounds are improved when we replaced the CV with same CV but with a better perceptual measure. Additionally, using CVs with similar perceptual measure, on average 28% of CVs are improved when we replaced the vowel with vowel {A}, 28% of CVs are improved when we replaced the vowel with vowel {E}, 25% of CVs are improved when we replaced the vowel with vowel {ae}, and 19% of CVs are improved when we replaced the vowel with vowel {I}.

The confusion pattern in each case, provides insight on how these changes affect the phone recognition in each ear. We propose to prescribe hearing aid amplification tailored to individual ears, based on the confusion pattern, the response from change in perceptual measure,
and the response from change in vowel.

These tests are directed at the fine-tuning of hearing aid insertion gain, with the ultimate goal of improving speech perception, and to precisely identify when and for what consonants the ear with hearing loss needs treatment to enhance speech recognition.

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