When auditory and visual speech information are presented together, listeners obtain an audiovisual (AV) benefit or a speech understanding improvement compared with auditory-only (AO) or visual-only (VO) presentations. Cochlear-implant (CI) listeners, who receive degraded speech input and therefore understand speech using primarily temporal information, seem to readily use visual cues and can achieve a larger AV benefit than normal-hearing (NH) listeners. It is unclear, however, if the AV benefit remains relatively large for CI listeners when trying to understand foreign-accented speech when compared with unaccented speech. Accented speech can introduce changes to temporal auditory cues and visual cues, which could decrease the usefulness of AV information. Furthermore, we sought to determine if the AV benefit was relatively larger in CI compared with NH listeners for both unaccented and accented speech.
AV benefit was investigated for unaccented and Spanish-accented speech by presenting English sentences in AO, VO, and AV conditions to 15 CI and 15 age- and performance-matched NH listeners. Performance matching between NH and CI listeners was achieved by varying the number of channels of a noise vocoder for the NH listeners. Because of the differences in age and hearing history of the CI listeners, the effects of listener-related variables on speech understanding performance and AV benefit were also examined.
AV benefit was observed for both unaccented and accented conditions and for both CI and NH listeners. The two groups showed similar performance for the AO and AV conditions, and the normalized AV benefit was relatively smaller for the accented than the unaccented conditions. In the CI listeners, older age was associated with significantly poorer performance with the accented speaker compared with the unaccented speaker. The negative impact of age was somewhat reduced by a significant improvement in performance with access to AV information.
When auditory speech information is degraded by CI sound processing, visual cues can be used to improve speech understanding, even in the presence of a Spanish accent. The AV benefit of the CI listeners closely matched that of the NH listeners presented with vocoded speech, which was unexpected given that CI listeners appear to rely more on visual information to communicate. This result is perhaps due to the one-to-one age and performance matching of the listeners. While aging decreased CI listener performance with the accented speaker, access to visual cues boosted performance and could partially overcome the age-related speech understanding deficits for the older CI listeners.