A friend gave me a card the other day wishing me all the best with learning “sound language” which I think is a jolly good way of putting it.
How am I learning it? I’ve been given a listening exercise diary – sounds heard and sounds recognised – and am listening to an audiobook of Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, with the print version in front of me, and a number of challenging words in the form of Setswana names. I can now hear the different voices put on for the different characters – funnily enough, Mma Makutsi isn’t so easy to understand, or so clear, as Mma Ramotswe! So that’s sound with the identical text to help me along.
Church is, in a way, a live audiobook with the entire service in the pew leaflet. On Easter Sunday we staggered up out of bed at 5am to attend the 6am service at our local cathedral. This was small and intimate, starting in the Easter garden, where I could hear the crackling of the fire, and then moved into the crossing. There were perhaps 50 people. I could hear the clear voice of the canon taking the service, and follow every single word independently. Best of all, I could join in with the hymns much more confidently than ever before – hearing everyone starting to sing and at the beginning of each verse, not losing vital hundredths of a second in looking for the visual cue to sing and lagging behind. The power of communal singing is quite something and taps into my memories of being in the choir at school.
I’m already finding that hearing the sound of human speech – even if I’m not understanding the actual words – is making a difference in the same way to conversation. I’m looking at people as they start to speak, not looking around to see who’s responding and missing the first word or syllable: I’m getting more of the context straight away, which establishes the pathways to follow in the conversation.
There are other cues which have been helping me to recognise sounds. Lipreading is an obvious one, of course. It’s helping the sounds as much as the sounds are helping the lipreading. I’ve always been able to tell accents by lipreading, so now I’m listening out for those differences I can already see and hearing different rhythms of speech. Yesterday, out for a walk, I heard a ruff-ruff sound and spotted a feisty little Jack Russell having a yappity-yap at me. So I was lipreading him – I could see his mouth opening and closing in time with the ruff-ruff noise. I stood there and challenged him to bark again, and he duly obliged. Yeah, I got that, thanks very much chum. Another thing ticked off on my homework “Dog barking.” Don’t know anyone with a cat. How am I to do “cat meowing?”
Other visual clues are similarly self-evident – I hear a rumble, then I see a car and I make sense of the rumble, but I quickly started to hear cars behind me, realising what the sound was, and anticipated seeing the car. Quite often in the past few days I have heard chirping or chirruping noises and then seen a bird fly out of a hedge or hop onto a fence, or swoop around a building. Running water is another experience of the same kind: you see it, so you know it. Cheating? Not really – a visual aid. Besides, at first I could only hear what I saw, such as the toilet flushing: I’m now able to hear the cistern filling up afterwards, which I can’t see.
But what about touch? Vibrations are another way of making sense of sound language. I used to detect the quality of a sound by the way it *felt*. I still do. I knew exactly what it sounded like through my fingertips. I don’t just feel the difference between the water running free out of the tap and the way it hits my hands when I wash them, or when I put my toothbrush under the water – I can hear the difference in the water noise. Likewise, the zza-zza-zza of the knife cutting through the bread was recognisable at once. My parents’ letter-knife scraped on the ceramic mantelpiece was a thin tinny sound – because I’ve managed to scrape the same knife on the mantelpiece often enough. This morning, commuting on the train for the first time since activation, and standing in the train waiting to disembark, I could hear a squealing noise as the train slowed down, and knew it for what it was, as I could feel the same squealing under my feet, that of the brakes being applied to the wheels, and the wheels protesting.
Then there’s context. The train is another perfect example of this. As the train pulled away from home this morning, I could hear the tannoy going: it was an enlarged human voice filling the carriage, booming out something unintelligible, presumably all stations to London! Just before standing at the end of the carriage as I described above, what should I hear but another announcement, and that very clearly: We are now approaching the Valley-of-the-Pigs. (Yes, there is a town in England whose name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for just that.) I heard and understood because it was the kind of thing I would have expected the disembodied voice to say – context.
But I’m laying down new neural pathways and recognising sounds previously heard and hearing them from other people. I’ve become so used to the sound of Bear’s coughing that I know EXACTLY what a cough sounds like. I turned up at work to be confronted by a cacophony of coughing from colleagues in my team. HAAK-HAAK. Hack-hack-hack, hack-hack-hack. Honk-honk. Haaaaa-HACK. HAAK-HAAK. Hack-hack-hack, hack-hack-hack. Honk-honk. Haaaaa-HACK. And so on, and so forth. I could tell exactly who was responsible for which noise. I said something I never thought I’d hear myself say (come to think of it, I never thought I’d hear myself say anything): “Die quietly . . .”
Oh, and everyone can tell the difference in my voice. Parents, Bear, colleagues, friends. But that’s all unconscious.