The use of acoustic cues in phonetic perception: Effects of spectral degradation, limited bandwidth and background noise

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Hearing impairment, cochlear implantation, background noise and other auditory degradations result in the loss or distortion of sound information thought to be critical to speech perception. In many cases, listeners can still identify speech sounds despite degradations, but understanding of how this is accomplished is incomplete. Experiments presented here tested the hypothesis that listeners would utilize acoustic-phonetic cues differently if one or more cues were degraded by hearing impairment or simulated hearing impairment. Results supported this hypothesis for various listening conditions that are directly relevant for clinical populations. Analysis included mixed-effects logistic modeling of contributions of individual acoustic cues for various contrasts. Listeners with cochlear implants (CIs) or normal-hearing (NH) listeners in CI simulations showed increased use of acoustic cues in the temporal domain and decreased use of cues in the spectral domain for the tense/lax vowel contrast and the word-final fricative voicing contrast. For the word-initial stop voicing contrast, NH listeners made less use of voice-onset time and greater use of voice pitch in conditions that simulated high-frequency hearing impairment and/or masking noise; influence of these cues was further modulated by consonant place of articulation. A pair of experiments measured phonetic context effects for the "s/sh" contrast, replicating previously observed effects for NH listeners and generalizing them to CI listeners as well, despite known deficiencies in spectral resolution for CI listeners. For NH listeners in CI simulations, these context effects were absent or negligible. Audio-visual delivery of this experiment revealed enhanced influence of visual lip-rounding cues for CI listeners and NH listeners in CI simulations. Additionally, CI listeners demonstrated that visual cues to gender influence phonetic perception in a manner consistent with gender-related voice acoustics. All of these results suggest that listeners are able to accommodate challenging listening situations by capitalizing on the natural (multimodal) covariance in speech signals. Additionally, these results imply that there are potential differences in speech perception by NH listeners and listeners with hearing impairment that would be overlooked by traditional word recognition or consonant confusion matrix analysis.