The goal of the present study was to compare the extent to which children with hearing loss and children with normal hearing benefit from mismatches in target/masker sex in the context of speech-in-speech recognition. It was hypothesized that children with hearing loss experience a smaller target/masker sex mismatch benefit relative to children with normal hearing due to impairments in peripheral encoding, variable access to high-quality auditory input, or both.
Eighteen school-age children with sensorineural hearing loss (7 to 15 years) and 18 age-matched children with normal hearing participated in this study. Children with hearing losswere bilateral hearing aid users. Severity of hearing loss ranged from mild to severe across participants, but most had mild to moderate hearing loss. Speech recognition thresholds for disyllabic words presented in a two-talker speech masker were estimated in the sound field using an adaptive, forced-choice procedure with a picture-pointing response. Participants were tested in each of four conditions: (1) male target speech/two-male-talker masker; (2) male target speech/two-female-talker masker; (3) female target speech/two-female-talker masker; and (4) female target speech/two-male-talker masker. Children with hearing loss were tested wearing their personal hearing aids at user settings.
Both groups of children showed a sex-mismatch benefit, requiring a more advantageous signal to noise ratio when the target and masker were matched in sex than when they were mismatched. However, the magnitude of sex-mismatch benefit was significantly reduced for children with hearing loss relative to age-matched children with normal hearing. There was no effect of child age on the magnitude of sex-mismatch benefit. The sex-mismatch benefit was larger for male target speech than for female target speech. For children with hearing loss, the magnitude of sex-mismatch benefit was not associated with degree of hearing loss or aided audibility.
The findings from the present study indicate that children with sensorineural hearing loss are able to capitalize on acoustic differences between speech produced by male and female talkers when asked to recognize target words in a competing speech masker. However, children with hearing loss experienced a smaller benefit relative to their peers with normal hearing. No association between the sex-mismatch benefit and measures of unaided thresholds or aided audibility were observed for children with hearing loss, suggesting that reduced peripheral encoding is not the only factor responsible for the smaller sex-mismatch benefit relative to children with normal hearing.