New program teaches people to listen better after hearing loss

Hearing aid manufacturers are constantly developing more sophisticated instruments, yet remarkably, studies show that user satisfaction hasn’t increased much, if at all. A group of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis wondered if they could address this problem by teaching people with hearing loss how to listen better.


The researchers are testing a computer-based auditory training program they created with funding from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, one of the National Institutes of Health. Taking advantage of the thought processes that people use to learn a new language, the program trains listeners to hear spoken language more accurately and with less effort.

The researchers hope their new approach will enable people with hearing loss to take part in everyday activities with greater confidence. They are looking for volunteers with hearing loss to go through the training program.

“Hearing aids amplify sound, but they don’t correct the underlying hearing damage,” says audiologist Nancy Tye-Murray, Ph.D., research professor of otolaryngology and the lead investigator in the research project. “So what people hear is different from what they heard before their hearing loss, and they need to be taught how to interpret the sounds they hear.”

Murray says that most people with hearing loss don’t receive any auditory training. And those who do are likely to go through a traditional program that asks listeners to distinguish between carefully enunciated syllables — nonsense sounds like “aba” and “ada” or words like “ma” and “pa,” for example. But the researchers feel the absence of meaning and real-world context in these artificial exercises makes them largely ineffective.

Learning to use a hearing aid is much like learning a second language, says co-investigator Mitchell Sommers, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, who focuses on speech perception and auditory processing. “Without proper training, using a hearing aid can be a little like trying to learn Arabic by just listening to people speaking in Arabic,” he says.

To understand a new language — or words through a hearing aid — the listener has to learn to take a sound signal and associate it with a meaning, Sommers says. Enhancing the connection between individual sounds and meaning is a central component of the researchers’ training program.

During the eight-week program, participants will engage in five computer-guided listening tasks during weekly training sessions. Each session will revolve around a single familiar theme, such as going to a restaurant or visiting a doctor, so the participant will be able to listen for meaning instead of just sounds. Images on the computer screen will correspond to spoken words to reinforce the link between sound and meaning. Exercises such as completing sentences, making sense of ambiguous words within sentences and answering questions about spoken paragraphs will teach thinking skills that increase the ability to hear language.

Another important aspect of the training is that it exposes participants to several different talkers — male and female speakers with different manners of speaking. Hearing different speakers develops specific mental facilities that help a listener better understand spoken language.

“Our minds process certain variations in words spoken by different speakers into a single linguistic message,” says co-investigator Joe Barcroft, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish and second language acquisition from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “These spoken variations actually help rather than hinder your ability to learn language.”

The computer program monitors participants’ listening accuracy and continually adapts to their abilities. It also provides feedback to let participants follow their own progress and gain confidence in their listening abilities.

“We hope that if the training program proves effective, we can make it available for people to use at home,” Murray says. “That would make auditory training more convenient and less expensive.”

People with hearing loss are invited to participate in the training program. It is not necessary for participants to have a hearing aid. Some participants might be assigned to a group that learns sign language in lieu of learning listening techniques. Those interested in volunteering can call Cathy Schroy or Elizabeth Mauze at 314-747-7181.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.