I hear but don't understand

Why speech doesn't sound clear

When people begin to lose their hearing, they invariably complain that the people around them are mumbling, speaking too fast or slurring their words. This reaction is understandable because before they started to lose their hearing, people did not seem to mumble, speak too fast or slur their words.

When clarity of other people's speech seems to go, it is often the first sign of deafness. Sounds can be heard coming out of their mouths but their words don't make sense. As a friend of mine once put it, "They seem to be speaking a foreign language". When other people do seem to understand it is particularly telling.

Only the profoundly deaf hear absolutely nothing or next to nothing. For most of us, the onset of deafness is signalled by loss of clarity of speech.

Clarity of speech and deafness

During the early stages of deafness, the first sign after apparent mumbling and slurring is is that people appear to be speaking too quietly - and this may be the case to some extent - although clarity can also be lost if the sound is too loud. For more information see the page on loudness and deafness.

For most people, though, their deafness is due to progressively losing the ability to hear the higher notes. This is pitch-related deafness. For further information, see the page on pitch and deafness.

When the deafness is greater in one ear than the other, the inability to pinpoint the direction of sounds together with loss of clarity makes them all merge together. This gives rise to the common problem of background noise - see the page of further information on background noise.

Loss of clarity can also be caused by a blockage of some sort. One example could be ear wax but there are others - see the page on blockage.

In practice, the causes of hearing loss are complex, and the above only considers common causes and is a simplification. The good news, though, is that digital hearing aids have come a long way towards addressing most of the problems. Where they can't, deaf people have to find ways of coping - and that is what this website is about.

How to improve the clarity of what you hear

There is a lot that deaf people can do for themselves to cope with a loss of clarity. There is also a lot that other people can do to help them - see coping strategies and helping deaf people. Both pages link to further pages which explain and discuss more fully.


Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.