Billy 2.0 – Two steps forward, one step back

Stock picture of a hearing test

I've been switched on for a month now. It's been a really steep learning curve, and after two tuning sessions I'm starting to feel like I'm getting close to the potential of the technology itself. I can hear all sorts of stuff now, that I won't bore you with.

Hearing stuff is easy now.

Identifying it is much harder.

It's especially harder when it comes to speech - I already sort of knew this, but it's now becoming really obvious to me on a daily basis. Speech is made up of an almost infinite number of combinations of consonants, vowels, accents, speaking speeds, and so many other variables. It sounds almost completely alien to me after more than 30 years of learning to hear speech through hearing aids.

I'm beginning to develop a discrimination of sounds though. I can tell the difference between a d and a t, just about. Sounds like s are starting to become clearer.

Despite all that, I'm not very happy at the moment. I'm going to explain why.

I had my one month hearing test the other day. I've been having hearing tests since I was a baby. You sit in a soundproofed room and press a button when you hear sounds.

However, this was a different kind of hearing test. I was trying to listen to a man's disembodied voice coming from a speaker, and to understand what he was saying.

I've taken this test before, as part of my assessment for the cochlear implant. I scored 1%, and that was only because I was wildly guessing at words like at, the, and and.

This time round I could hear more, but I understood even less. I could recognise p, ng, t sounds, but all of my guesses at what was being said were completely wrong. I scored 0%.

Fair enough.

But what really surprised me was the lipreading test. In this test they play a video of a man speaking without much facial expression, with sound accompanying it. When I took this test pre implant, I scored 96%.

When I took the test again earlier this week, I scored 75%.

So my comprehension of the spoken word is currently significantly worse than it was before the operation. In fact when I took the test this time round, I felt as though I was being overloaded with information - both visually and aurally. It was almost as though my brain didn't know whether to listen to the speech first, or rely on the visual input first.

I was pretty down about this for a while, then I decided to put all of this in context. When I took the test first time round, it was wearing a hearing aid I'd had 30+ years of experience with. My brain was hammering every last dB of information it received from those hearing aids, and making pretty good guesses with the limited data.

Contrast that with this device in my head, which I've only had for a month, and was only turned up fully about two weeks ago. I'm having to relearn what speech sounds like all over again.

A slightly disappointing milestone - but at the same time useful as a benchmark for future measurement. I'll be tested again at the three month mark, then at the six month mark, then again at one year. Hopefully improvement will show then.

I know where I am in testing terms, I now feel like I'm hearing everything around me day to day (OK, here's a quick list: squeaking cabinet doors, fluorescent lights, my son's giggle, the telephone, the wind outside, the waterfall outside the office, the clicking sound of the indicator in the car, the cracking noise my neck makes sometimes).

Now it's time for a plan of focused, structured training every day, where I can measure my progress. Listening to audiobooks, learning the ling sounds of speech, watching TV without subtitles, using Kindergarten iPad apps, listening to music and trying to follow the lyrics, and much more.

It's time for a training montage.

9 Comments

  1. Tina says:

    Hi Billy
    I went through a similar 'dip' and plateau, it's tough to keep up the training. Try to keep the thought in your head that your brain is working hard behind the scenes and you just can't see the results yet. it's like rehearsing for a play. One day it will all come together beautifully :)

    Reply
  2. yana says:

    Hiya,

    Actualy I am really impressed by improvements you are making and hearing things.
    It can also be frustrating learning new information and sometimes brain can get a bit overloaded, and new things can be a bit daunting as well. Just generaly speaking.
    But when it comes to loudspeakers and trying to figure out what this distorted voice is saying over a loudspeaker is almost uncomprehensible for a fully hearing person like myself. Good example of that would tube platforms and even inside the tube, most of the time we just look at each other and go: 'What did he say? I did not understand a word!'
    So yes...well done on improvements and it will all come together.

    Yana :)

    Reply
  3. Sofya Gollan says:

    Hey Billy, the environmental sounds will fade into the background where they belong in a couple of months. I remember being tormented by the sound of my footsteps around the apartment the first couple of months I was implanted. It drove me nuts! I felt like someone was following me!
    You're doing great.
    Sof

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  4. Kelli Thomas says:

    Hey Billy,

    It will get better. I have been implanted for 4 months now and I still get frustrated that my totally dead ear is not where I would like it to be. But it is hearing sounds and like you beginning to distinguish between lots of speech sounds now. I to try and push the training. Keep it up it will get better. My son was Implanted 5 months ago and doing better then I. My Mom is being Implanted in April.

    Reply
  5. Chap says:

    Your description sounds a lot to me like learning a language or dealing with dialects. I have the same problem switching to various accents or dialect in Arabic, and a translator I worked with this week would stumble when confronted with an Arabic speaker who knew English, because things changed just enough to not work.

    If my hunch is true, you'll get there, but it will take work and be tiring. Good luck!

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  6. marc says:

    To me it sounds like your learning to filter your input. Would that be a fair description?
    Do you ever try generating your own audio (with something like this http://www.ivona.com/en/) to see how well you understand them when you know what they are?

    Reply
  7. deaflinguist says:

    Two steps forward and one back still results in a net gain!

    I had that experience several times in the first few months. I'd feel that some aspect was becoming subtly worse, before something appeared to slot into place and both clarity of perception and comprehension went up a notch. After a while I got used to that happening so I anticipated these gains rather than worrying about it.

    Speech is so complex it's a lot to demand of your brain but it's working on it, clearly, and the change in lipreading is quite dramatic.

    I am convinced my lipreading skills have gone down because the implanted ear is dominant enough for it to impact on the lipreading, but I'm still a pretty good lipreader (you don't abandon a lifelong skill just like that!) It was still a bit of a shock to the system, though, because being a very good lipreader is part of my identity.

    For me, now, it's as if I can operate using the two modes of lipreading and hearing which interact in different ratios according to the circumstances. One or the other may be more dominant in a particular context, or work solo (if I chat across the house with my other half, where I can't see him, at the one end of the spectrum and talk to someone in a crowded room at the other end, where I can't pick out their voice very well).

    In the same way, I will often switch between lipspeaking and signing where both forms of interpretation are available - that switch seems to refresh my brain to take in more. I just see the lipreading/hearing mix as another form of bimodalism/bilingualism.

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  8. Leah Meerton says:

    This makes fascinating reading Billy. Do you think there could be a better method of preparing potential CI users, especially those who have been deaf for a long time. Should we disuade some people from going ahead with a CI. Do you have any suggestions in answer to this I wonder.

    Reply

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