Formants, frequencies and how to understand hearing loss better

You might be asking yourself, “What are formants, and why should I know them?”  The short answer is they help you understand hearing loss a little better.  In simple terms, formants are the frequencies of different sounds, particularly vowels.  They vary in frequency based on the size and shape of the vocal tract.  Together, all the formants let us know what a specific sound is.  For example, /o/ as in top and /u/ as in cup have similar articulation.  Go ahead and say them.  Notice how your jaw moves ever so slightly?  You might not realize it, but your vocal tract is also changing slightly.  The slight change in the size and shape of your vocal tract produces different frequencies, allowing us to perceive different sounds.

Now, consider /ee/ as in cheese and /oo/ as in moon in the Ling Sound check.  Many times children respond with /ee/ when you present /oo/ and vice versa.  If this is a consistent error, the child might not be able to hear all the formants of these sounds.  In this case, the first formants of these sounds are similar; however it’s the second formant that’s important for distinguishing these two sounds.  So, if mishearing sounds are a common occurrence, it might be a good time to have a discussion with your best friend, the pediatric audiologist and make sure you mention formants!

Jennifer Manley served as a classroom teacher for students ages 3 to 12 at CID – Central Institute for the Deaf. She currently works in professional development giving presentations on auditory development and is co-author of CID SPICE for Life, an auditory learning curriculum and author of the 2nd edition of CID SPICE.

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