Have you ever misheard a word or phrase in conversation and felt confused? Language is made of many individual speech sounds called “phonemes.” Some examples of phonemes would be the s, f, th, and sh sounds. Many phonemes sound very much alike and can easily cause word confusion, especially with hearing loss. While this can be harmless or even funny, it can also be frustrating or embarrassing. Imagine having an entire conversation talking about your mom, when really, someone asked “what’s going on.” Let’s talk about why it’s important to hear the difference, and what to do if you can’t understand conversation.
Our ears naturally age with time, and there are some sounds adults can’t hear. By age 25, adults may miss out on certain high-frequency sounds only kids can hear, according to Scientific American.* While this type of change isn’t a cause for concern, if you can hear but can’t understand words on a regular basis, your hearing health might need attention.
But there are numerous other ways that you can find yourself misunderstanding words. Oronyms, for example, are a series of words that sounds very similar to another phrase that has a different meaning. Some oronym examples are “night rain” and “night train,” or “that’s tough” and “that stuff.” These types of mix-ups aren’t necessarily hearing related—they typically result from confusion about the context or conversation in general.
On the other hand, if someone says “can you bring me a copy?” and you hear them say “can you bring me a coffee?” this would be a sign that you’re mishearing speech and sound itself. If this specific situation happened in the workplace, you might end up asking someone if they wanted cream and sugar, instead of printing out the document they requested. Situations like this can certainly lend themselves to humor, but may also be a signal to get your hearing tested. You can learn more about the mechanics of missing certain sounds in our blog post “Why Am I Hearing Words Incorrectly?”
The impact of having trouble understanding speech will likely affect you as much as—if not more—those around you. Feelings of embarrassment or shame are very real if you experience signs of hearing loss. And in a social situation where you make a mistake and attention is drawn to it, feelings of anxiety can easily be stirred up, even as you try to laugh it off. In the workplace, you might begin to worry about how others perceive your ability to do your job. In your private life, mix-ups can result in frustrations and, eventually, isolation—if you’re concerned about hearing but not understanding, it might lead to you avoiding interactions with other people.
That kind of anxiety and discomfort in coming to terms with hearing loss affects many people, and it’s common to wait as long as 10 years before seeking help. Leaving hearing loss unaddressed can contribute to or compound other physical health concerns, like cognitive decline or difficulty with balance—which can lead to falls. If you withdraw socially because you feel like you can’t fully engage in discussions, or like you’re disrupting the flow of a conversation because you can hear but can’t understand words, might also affect your mental health, causing stress and depression.
While these can be difficult realities to face, the benefits of taking action to address hearing loss are dramatic. Seeing a hearing care specialist to address your specific needs can make a huge difference in your health, mood and ability to fully engage in your life.
If you notice you’re mixing up words and phrases fairly often, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a professional. A hearing loss speech recognition test is one method used to determine how easily you’re able to pick up on words used in everyday language. The test is conducted by having you listen to a series of words which you then repeat one at a time. If your hearing test shows that you can benefit from hearing aids, using them will allow you to hear everyday sounds and re-engage with your life in a new way.
Imagine going to lunch with a friend or attending a gathering and being able to hear everyone clearly with ease. The benefits of getting fitted for hearing aids extend beyond simply amplifying sound—they create crisp, clear sound with programming that’s personalized for your hearing needs. These tiny devices fill in the gaps or missing sounds your ears don’t naturally pick up, sending a full range of sound to your brain so you can re-engage in conversation.
In addition to wearing hearing aids, any conversation can be improved by speaking slowly in face-to-face conversation, in a quiet setting if possible. Laughter, conversation and connection with people make life meaningful, and smooth sound is the key to making it all possible.