Funded Grants

Context-specific speech perception and barriers to successful communication between healthcare providers and aging patients

This project examines how speech perception, an important aspect of human cognition, occurs in real-world situations. Nearly a century of research has demonstrated that speech production and perception can be influenced by the physical context in which they take place (e.g., noisy environments differ from quiet environments). However, much less is known about how specific physical and linguistic contexts interact during speech perception and how the challenges induced by some contexts may be modulated by factors such as listener age. Investigating the impact of context-specific factors on communication is critical to fully understanding human cognition or to design solutions for everyday communication challenges.

We aim to identify the impacts of a set of physical and linguistic contexts, specifically healthcare. We have developed a corpus of medically-related sentences which contain words that have been normed for frequency and familiarity. We plan to use this corpus to develop experiments that will allow us to examine how laboratory-based behavior translates to ecologically valid scenarios across a range of populations. Our aims are to: (1) measure “baseline” perceptual performance for younger and older adults on sentences with medical terminology presented in quiet, in speech-shaped noise, and in hospital noise, (2) compare these baseline measures to more ecologically-valid scenarios using simulated healthcare provider - patient communication and simulated telehealth situations with both younger and older adults, and (3) compare these baseline measures to perception of medically-related speech from an unfamiliar accent (i.e., non-native speakers) for both younger and older adults. In addition to collecting measures of speech perception, we will collect measures of hearing status and of cognitive function.

The results of these studies will inform our understanding of how real-world experience may interact with some of the physiological and cognitive consequences of aging when perceiving speech outside of the laboratory. For example, older adults likely have more experience with healthcare situations and typically have larger vocabularies due to increased life experience compared to younger adults. These effects may help them to better understand medical communication, even in noisy environments (e.g., hospitals). On the other hand, older adults are also likely to have reduced access to the acoustic signal due to age-related hearing loss and slower cognitive processing than younger adults. These factors may hinder their ability to understand medical communication, and may be differentially affected by hospital noise, which may be more acoustically distracting to a listener than other types of noise.

The team for this project includes two experts in speech and language processing (Drs. Melissa Baese-Berk & Tessa Bent), an expert in acoustics of healthcare settings (Dr. Erica Ryherd), and an expert in geriatric medicine (Dr. Natalie Manley). Our unique collaboration will allow us to address real-world challenges of medical communication while informing our understanding of a fundamental cognitive skill: perception of speech and language.