x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE audiologist develops Arabic-language test for hearing loss

The test is in Modern Standard Arabic, as opposed to local dialects that may be used in country-specific tests.

Sharifa Al Balushi, an Omani audiologist, at the 11th Middle East Update in Otolaryngology Conference at Madinat Arena. Jaime Puebla / The National
Sharifa Al Balushi, an Omani audiologist, at the 11th Middle East Update in Otolaryngology Conference at Madinat Arena. Jaime Puebla / The National

DUBAI // For audiologists, bananas are not simply a fruit – they are tools important to understanding the degree of a person’s hearing loss.

And for one Omani researcher, the fruit may be the key to helping Arabic speakers deal with hearing issues.

A speech banana is what audiologists call the representation of the frequency and intensity of sounds of speech in a language, also called phonemes. The phonemes create a banana shape when plotted on an audiogram, a graph of pitch in hertz and intensity in decibels.

This representation shows, for instance, that the sounds “th”, “f” and “s” in English are more difficult to hear than sounds such as “m”, “d” or ch”, helping make sense of the severity of the listener’s hearing loss.

But no speech banana has been made for Arabic phonemes, a problem that has inspired Sharifa Al Balushi, an Omani audiologist, to fill that gap.

Her research could help Arabic speakers to better understand their hearing loss, she says.

“They will become more convinced they may need a hearing device and they will be engaged in the treatment plan,” Ms Al Balushi said.

Ms Al Balushi is just one audiologist looking for ways to provide better diagnoses and advise patients in the Arabic-speaking world.

Testing people in their native languages is crucial for measuring their hearing loss, even if they fluently speak another language, such as English, researchers say.

Michael Buschermohle, a German audiologist heading a team responsible for creating a hearing-loss test in Arabic, speaks English fluently. But his test results remain more accurate in German because of the way the brain sees patterns in language.

“If I do the English test, I’m usually about three decibels worse,” said Mr Buschermohle, whose research was commissioned by Cochlear, an Australian company that manufactures hearing implants. Three decibels can make a big impact on a diagnosis of the degree of hearing loss a person has.

Mr Buschermohle’s Arabic Matrix Test consists of 20 sentences using phonemes that reflect the frequency used and include the background noise that people with hearing loss may struggle to deal with in their everyday lives.

The test is in Modern Standard Arabic, as opposed to local dialects that may be used in country-specific tests.

“The bottom line is actually the quality of life,” said Nadia Abdulhaq, an audiologist who worked on the project with Mr Buschermohle.

A child may not be able to perform well in school if they cannot understand their teachers when there is background noise. Even typical office sounds – computer fans, printers, people talking on the phone, air conditioning – can make life harder for those with hearing loss.

“For someone with hearing loss, that is enough to make it hard and exhausting to listen the whole day,” she said.

Different countries tend to have different tests suited to their countries’ languages, but in diverse countries such as the UAE, clinics may need to test patients in a variety of languages.

Ms Al Balushi found when she was seeing her patients that it seemed unfair to use the English speech banana for diagnosing and explaining their hearing loss, because of the differences in Arabic phonemes, with some non-existent in English, such as “gh”, “kh” and glottal stops, and other English sounds, such as “ch” and “p”, non-existent in Arabic.

She has conducted a pilot study while doing her dissertation at Queen Margaret University in the UK and plans to conduct further research and data collection using a larger sample size in Oman to create a final Arabic-speech-spectrum audiogram.

The research would involve gathering participants, using software to analyse their speech and then plotting the results on the audiogram, said Ms Al Balushi, who is based at the Armed Forces Hospital in Oman.

Ms Balushi presented the preliminary results of her research at the Otolaryngology Conference and Exhibition in Dubai yesterday.

The idea intrigued Anas Shabana, a business developer for a medical distributor in Egypt, who attended the conference.

“In Egypt, it is quite important to have a language-based speech test,” he said. “Now, we are relying on an English test. But in Egypt, we deal in Arabic every day, in terms of day-to-day life.”

lcarroll@thenational.ae