Laurel or Yanny - and what it reveals about the listening process for children

Yanny or Laurel?  Isn’t listening to a single word meant to be child’s play?

Yes, it’s the latest viral sensation.  The game to play (and debate) with your colleagues, family and friends.  But how can two people listen to the same clip and hear two completely different words?  Scientists have put across their explanations (for example here and here), citing as reasons for the two different words heard similar frequencies of speech sounds, slightly unclear (or overlapping) audio material, and our brain hearing what it expects to hear.  But as well as being a fun social media sound experiment, it also gives us a chance to reflect on the listening process...

Hearing is not an all or nothing process involving just the ear. The processes involved in working out what the sound information means are many and complex (see our auditory processing article for more information).  This means that even if your child passes a hearing test with flying colours, they may still have trouble hearing the differences between sounds in words, or understanding words or sentences.

For example, some children with speech sound difficulties (but good hearing) may need practice to hear the difference between the sound they are learning and their error sound, so a child who says ‘ch’ as ‘sh’ may practice listening to pairs of words like ‘ship’ vs ‘chip’ before learning to say the ‘ch’ sound.  You may have heard speech sound difficulties called ‘phonological delay/disorder’, and listening games play a vital role in speech therapy.  In the yanny/laurel, we see how our brains can interpret sound information differently - even as adults who know all the speech sounds they are listening to!

There are very few situations in our lives when we are listening to words without background noise. We can take for granted what our brain is doing to screen this out.  The clip seems pretty high quality, yet the background noise is still thought to have an impact on our perception.  Will this prompt you to minimise background noise when talking to or playing with your child at home?  Turn off the TV or music during talking time to help them focus on your words.  Also, if someone you know wears a hearing aid, these amplify all noise including background noise, which can make it harder and more tiring to understand speech.

We fill in gaps, and hear what we expect to hear. Think about when you mishear song lyrics, then no matter how you try you can’t work out what the singer is actually saying (once you have heard “we built this city on sausage rolls” it’s hard to hear it as “rock and roll”...).  You only have to watch this fabulous clip from Peter Kay with Sister Sledge singing "Just let me staple the vicar".

We use our previous experiences, the position of the word in the sentence, and the situation in which we hear the word or sentence to make sense of it.  If we had heard the clip in the sentence “I need to prune my yanny/laurel bush” we may all have heard laurel!  Encourage your child to ask if they haven’t heard you, and encourage older children to use clues to work out the most likely word for the context.  This is a great skill for children to try when they come across new words in their reading book.

So before you go home and debate with your other half whether it is obviously yanny/laurel, spare a thought for the hard work your child is doing whilst learning to listen and understand words, when we adults still don’t always hear the same thing!

Written by Alys Mather, Speech and Language Therapist

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