I was thinking about the loss of hearing that can accompany aging, and how this loss can affect the ability to communicate verbally.

Since the ability to distinguish consonants tend to diminish before the ability to distinguish vowels, I was wondering if there are any languages that might be considered "senior friendly." For example, would Hawaiian be a fortuitous language for a community of seniors? If I understand what I've just read about the language, a person listening does not have to distinguish, for example, between "p" and "b" as well as some other consonant pairs, which get a little tricky when the pitches ringing in one's ears start becoming lower and mask more incoming sound.

From the little I know, Hawaiian is the most famous for emphasizing vowels. I am posting here because I assume people at this site will be much better acquainted with world languages and can point out if there are other vowel-oriented languages, perhaps one's related to Hawaiian or from which Hawaiian evolved.

Another side to this question, has anyone tried developing a "senior friendly" and easy-to-learn variant of English that reduces the language's dependence on high-frequency phonemes? Or is that a nutty idea?

  • 3
    Are the frequencies of speech actually lost with age? I thought high frequency hearing loss was, well, considerably higher frequency than that. – curiousdannii Oct 30 '20 at 8:37
  • I'm finding info at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss). Progressive loss if I'm reading correctly first affects ability to distinguish sibilants (up around 5-7 kHz?) and fricatives. The loss can progress into the 2-4kHz range at which point it is hard to distinguish consonants. I think this degree of loss also impacts the upper range of the 2nd vowel formant as well as higher formants. – Phil Freihofner Oct 31 '20 at 1:04
  • Ah, if it affects sibilants and fricatives that does make sense. Having trouble distinguishing [p] and [b] (in a language with a voicing distinction) would probably only happen in the most severe cases I'd guess. – curiousdannii Oct 31 '20 at 1:20
  • I can't find stats on the relative degrees of loss as a function of age. Articles distinguish deafness (inability to make out speech) from profound deafness. So "most severe cases" is best reserved for characterizing the latter, imho. – Phil Freihofner Oct 31 '20 at 5:35

I'll come back to this in 25 years to see if I have a different view, but as far as I can tell there are no properties of particular language phoneme selection that make a language senior-friendly vs. senior-unfriendly. There are some "whole language" properties that are challenging, viz. languages where by convention you talk fast, or quietly, but such problems can exist for understanding individual speakers of any language. This is why grampa is always saying "speak up!". There are two classes of hearing-loss-challenging segments: nasals and laterals (fall? fawn?; cam? can?), and fricatives (s vs f vs th) where amplitude profile with higher frequencies is a more significant factor. Still, s/f mistakes are not endemic, they are occasional. This is substantially mitigated by prior experience with the language before hearing-loss, since there are many low-level cues that tell you what word was said in your language, so if you miss one, you're not necessarily doomed. However, if you start to learn a language with novel sounds when you have substantial hearing loss, you don't have that background knowledge, and some pre-pausal consonants can be difficult to parse.

Coda consonants are challenging, because the cue for their detection is mainly a (quieter) formant transition from the precious vowel. The cure, as it were, is to switch to a language that has mostly CV syllables. Mandarin Chinese might be a good choice, especially the register used in non-dubbed medieval movies for export, because actors tend to speak slower and more distinctly. However, there is a non-hearing problem with Chinese, that by age 70, many people refuse to learn tones, or any other exotica. I did a quick comparison of Hawaiian and Abkhaz (studio recordings, from a Bible site) – languages I've never experienced before – and did not find the languages particularly difficult to "hear". I also listened to Tigrinya, which I have been working on for a few months, and had a more significant "what was that?" problem in auditory parsing – this is because of the low-level phonetics of the language (rapid speech rate, lenition).

  • Thanks, there's a lot of great info here. I've been going through it simultaneously working out the terminology. Of the CV based languages, I'm seeing reference also to Swahili/Zulu. But perhaps a more important aspect (in re presbycusis) is the relative role of sibilants and fricatives. I'm seeing that Hawaiian doesn't even have sibilants listed as a component of the language, and only the fricative "h". Am wondering if there are other languages with similar lack of sibilants/fricatives? – Phil Freihofner Oct 31 '20 at 1:13
  • PS, I plan to mark this as the solution--am just leaving the question open for a couple more days in case there might be additional contributions. – Phil Freihofner Oct 31 '20 at 19:12
  • Australian indigenous languages are famous for not having fricatives: except, in a few languages that I've read about, that is more a fact about phonemic contrast, not what actually happens phonetically. Similarly, Tigrinya has a lot more fricatives in actual pronunciation, but that's just how they pronounce the phonemes /k,g,b,d/. In some contexts, it does it hard to hear if the word has /b/ versus /w/. – user6726 Oct 31 '20 at 19:48
  • There is a claim that Dinka has no fricatives (it has γ,φ,θ,x phonetically), but you can treat most of those as phonetic variant of p,t,k and I don't know what the story would be for /γ/, maybe "it's /g/". – user6726 Oct 31 '20 at 19:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.