Verbal communication – it’s a human thing

MARTINSBURG — A dog has a torso and four limbs, two eyes, two ears, one nose, a heart, a couple of lungs, a brain. So do a cat and a gerbil and a lion and a prairie dog.

So what makes humans different from these other mammals? One of the primary differences is verbal communication. We can talk to each other. We can share ideas and pass on information. We can record history and hopefully learn from it.

Verbal communication depends on two primary abilities – a vocal tract able to produce a variety of sounds and a hearing mechanism able to receive those sounds.

As an audiologist, my primary interest in the communication process is the role of hearing. Although it is possible to communicate without some, or even all, of your hearing, this sensory deficit presents a huge obstacle to “easy” communication.

Hearing loss is one of the most common sensory deficits experienced by people. It is very easy to document and generally easy to correct. Most people who have hearing loss are not “deaf.” That is, most hearing-impaired people only have trouble hearing some sounds and sometimes only have trouble in certain kinds of situations, such as when background noise is present.

Most people who have hearing loss are not in danger of being hit by a train because they didn’t hear it coming. The problem that most hearing-impaired people have is understanding speech, the very thing that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  

Hearing loss is often referred to as an “invisible” deficit because there are no obvious outward signs that the person has a problem.  What the hearing-impaired person fails to realize is that other people are usually much more aware of the problem than they are. That is, when you say something to a person with a hearing loss and they do not respond or respond inappropriately, you know that – they don’t. This does not mean that the person speaking realizes what the problem is – only that there is a problem. Often the speaker thinks that the hearing-impaired person is not paying attention, or is becoming senile, or is “just plain stupid.” 

In the last five to 10 years, the technological advances in hearing aids have been absolutely incredible. I fit my first hearing aid about 40 years ago, and I never imagined that what I can do today would ever occur in my lifetime. Modern hearing aids can improve almost any hearing loss. The interesting thing is that today we are much more effective at correcting lesser amounts of hearing loss than ever before. People who have relatively normal hearing, but have trouble only in difficult listening situations, can use modern hearing aids if they are properly fit.  And those last two words are very important.

In most places including West Virginia, to sell hearing aids a person must be 18 years old and not a convicted felon. Selling hearing aids is not the same as properly fitting the devices. If you have a “plain vanilla” type of hearing loss – you just need sounds a little louder – it probably doesn’t matter where you buy your hearing aids. However, if you don’t have much trouble hearing, but your problem is understanding speech in certain situations, you need to be fit by someone who understands how the hearing mechanism works and how modern hearing aid circuitry can be used to correct your problem. A doctor of audiology is the only professional with this level of training.

Verbal communication is one of the primary differences between humans and other animals. Good hearing is essential to maintaining good verbal communication. If you have trouble understanding speech it is important that you seek advice from someone who understands the role that hearing plays in communication.

Maintain your difference from other members of the animal kingdom; get your hearing tested by a doctor of audiology.

— Michael Zagarella has operated a private audiology practice in Martinsburg for more than 25 years. He has performed hearing testing for the schools at the RESA 8 office since 1988. He can be reached at 304-267-8220.

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