Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: hearing

Seeing is Hearing: The McGurk Effect

For decades, speech pathologists and linguists have been entertaining people at parties with an interesting phenomenon known as the McGurk effect. The McGurk effect occurs when people are exposed to audio of one sound, with a visual of another sound being produced. People hear something different from the actual sound. I first learned of the effect via the following video, in which Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington elicits the effect with the sounds /ba-ba/ and /da-da/ or /tha-tha/:

Searching for that video, I found a fantastic example using the “Bill! Bill! Bill!” chant from the 90s kids science show, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Take a moment (24 seconds, to be exact) to watch and listen:

The audio is paired with images that affect how the word “Bill” is heard: first, images depicting different bills as shown. Then, as images of pails are shown the sound heard changes to “pail”. Next, images of mayonnaise are shown, and the sound shifts again to “mayo”. Did you hear the three different words?

A McGurk effect shows up in babies exposed to English by the time they are five months-old[1]. This effect seems to strengthen with age. However, the likelihood of a listener falling for the McGurk effect depends on different factors. These factors demonstrate the fascinating interplay between hearing and vision in our ability to understand spoken language.

In a noisy environment, people are more likely to mishear what was said. That makes sense; if there are a lot of noises around, it is harder to pick out one sound from the rest of the noise and correctly identify it. If English is your native language, you’re likely to fall for the McGurk effect. Researchers have found that native Japanese speakers are better able to correctly identify the sound presented, even when shown video of someone producing a different sound[2], with similar results for Chinese as a native language.

This may be related to differences in cultural communication, specifically, eye contact. In English-speaking cultures, for the most part, eye contact is pretty constant, with some degree of occasional gaze shift away from the speaker by the listener. In Asian cultures, eye contact with a speaker is less common, with a much greater degree of the listener directing his gaze to something other than the speaker. How we hear language is impacted by the engagement of the visual system while listening.

Further evidence that how we listen to language affects our tendency to fall for the McGurk effect was found in a 2008 study published in Brain Research[3]. In this study, deaf people who used cochlear implants to hear were compared with normally hearing people in their susceptibility to the McGurk effect. The normally hearing people did not fall quite as hard for the McGurk effect as the individuals using cochlear implants to hear, suggesting that the cochlear implant group relied more on what they saw the speaker doing with their mouth than the audio. This is further evidence that our understanding of spoken language is dependent on the sensory information we take in. This, in turn, seems to be related to our varied cultural communication styles.

We all come from different backgrounds of language, hearing, and abilities. It can be fun to share videos of the McGurk effect with people from diverse backgrounds, to see what they hear. Share what you heard in a comment below!

If you are interested in learning more about the McGurk effect, or if you would like to work on your speech hearing abilities, let us know. Until next time, let them hear your ideas, not your accent.

[1] Rosenblum, L., Schmuckler, M., & Johnson, J. (1995). The McGurk effect in infants. Perception & Psychophysics, 59, 347-357. link

[2] Sekiyama, K. & Tohkura, Y. (1991). McGurk effect in non-English listeners: Few visual effects for Japanese subjects hearing Japanese syllables of high auditory intelligibility. Journal of the Acoustical Sociaty of America, 90, 1797-1805. link

[3] Rouger, J., Fraysse, B., Deguine, O., & Barone, P. (2008). McGurk effects in cochlear-implanted deaf subjects. Brain Research, 1188, 87-99. link

7 Tips for Talking to People Who Are Hard of Hearing

According to the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association, 28.6 million people in America have problems with their hearing. That’s more people than there are in Nepal. That’s more people than the number of ping pong balls you can fit in a Hummer. That’s more people than there are bicycles in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland combined. You get the idea: it’s a heck of a lot of people. If you talk to people, chances are good you’re going to run into someone with hearing loss at some point or another. Read on for seven great tips for communicating with people who are hard of hearing.

by Das Fotoimaginarium

These guys are doing it right. (Photo: Conversation, by Das Fotoimaginarium)

  1. Look at the person. It’s not recommended to stare at the person like a creep, but it’s a good idea to look the person in the eye when you’re talking to them. That way, not only do you know you have their attention, but they can see your mouth and get a better idea of the words you’re saying, and they can read the expression on your face. If you’re trying to talk to someone who is behind you, there’s less of a probability that they will know what you’re saying.
  2. Have good lighting. Having the person be able to see you doesn’t help if you’re in the dark, unless they happen to be a lemur and can see in the dark. 

    Don't worry about lighting with this fella. (Photo: Brown Mouse Lemur, by Frank Vassen)

    Don’t worry about lighting with this fella. (Photo: Brown Mouse Lemur, by Frank Vassen)

  3. Increase the volume of your voice without losing your intonation. It can be helpful to speak in a louder voice, but try to keep the ups and downs of your speech; otherwise, it might sound like you’re shouting at the person.
  4. Some people hear better on one side than the other. If someone says they hear better on their right side, talk more into that ear, but try to do so in a way that they can still see your face.
  5. Cut down the background noise. It’s never a good idea to try to have a conversation with someone in a construction site; similarly, turn down background music and turn off the television. If you are in a room with a lot of other people, look for a quiet spot to talk. Background noise can be distracting to the listener and can make it harder for them to hear you.

    Not an ideal place for a conversation. (Photo: Crowd, by James Cridland)

    Not an ideal place for a conversation. (Photo: Crowd, by James Cridland)

  6. If someone is having trouble understanding, rephrase what you’re trying to say. Try to stay away from words with s, f, and th sounds. (Those sounds are the hardest to hear.)
  7. If you’re not sure if the other person is following you, ask!

Good communication involves a speaker and a listener. If you want someone to be thinking about what you have to say, try to set up the conversation for success. It only takes a small effort to share your big ideas.

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