For the last week, my well pump has been running constantly, thanks to a worn-out pressure switch. I can hear it from anywhere in the house, even though it’s in the back yard. If I give the switch a tap, it shuts off.
My wife doesn’t usually hear it. Not because her hearing is less sharp than mine, but because she doesn’t tune in to mechanical noises. They don’t matter to her. (She also sleeps through her phone alarm most of the time.)
Last night, besides the pump’s hum, I heard a weird chirping sound while I was getting ready for bed. I couldn’t tell where it came from; it was sharpest when I faced the front yard. Alicia thought it might be cicadas, but it sounded electronic or mechanical to me. When I went down to the garage to pop the pump circuit breaker off and on (another way to get it to switch off), the noise was piercingly loud and seemed to be coming from the wall behind the dryer.
There was an old Verizon alarm unit hanging on the wall, so I dragged a ladder over and opened it up. It had a big battery inside, which I pulled out. The noise continued. I pulled loose the cables that came down to the unit from the ceiling. Still the noise continued. I pulled the whole unit off the wall and made sure it wasn’t plugged in. No difference. The noise didn’t seem to be coming from the device in any case, although it was clearly nearby.
Then I looked at the shelf right below the alarm and discovered a smoke alarm that I had taken down so I could paint the breakfast room ceiling. It had been on a shelf in the family room, but I moved all the tools and supplies out to the garage yesterday in preparation for Christmas Eve. The dryer vents into the garage, and the hot air activated the stupid alarm. So I pulled the battery out, and behold! The noise stopped.
When I studied linguistics some 25 years ago, I discovered that I was exceptionally good at phonetics. The class required recognition and production of speech sounds from all over the world. Invariably I was at the top of the class at both transcription and production.
My hearing is not exceptional. I have some high-frequency hearing loss, which is common at my age, and am in the normal range for the rest of the frequencies. The reason I was good at phonetics transcription has more to do with discrimination than with hearing. I had the ability to give importance to miniscule differences in sound that my classmates didn’t always notice.
In my job as a translator, I have to transcribe recorded conversations. I’m very good at it, but I’ve discovered that familiarity with regional Spanish dialects makes a huge difference to the quality of my work. If I’m transcribing Mexican or Colombian conversations, I can usually capture as much detail as any of my colleagues, but if I’m assigned recordings of Puerto Ricans or Cubans or Dominicans, I miss a lot of information that a colleague from the Caribbean would catch.
In Spanish (as in English), there is a tendency to slur or drop certain sounds. For instance, when I first started working with recordings of Mexican speakers, I would hear them say “lo-lo” when giving driving directions. I had no clue what it meant, until a colleague told me they were actually saying “luego luego,” which means “immediately after.”
When I hear Cubans speaking on a recording, a lot of it sounds like “to-to-to-to” to me, because they drop or minimize the letter S and other fricatives and pronounce their vowels less clearly than Mexicans or Colombians. In addition, they use expressions that are unfamiliar to me, so I have trouble making an educated guess at what they’re saying. My transcriptions of Cuban conversations end up with a lot of portions marked [UI] (unintelligible). One of my colleagues from Cuba or Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic will review my work and, and can usually fill in most of the UIs. When I go back over the recording, looking at the notes from my colleague, I can hear most of the corrections. But the lack of familiarity is a real handicap.
I’ve often wondered what the relationship is between intelligence and memory. Outstanding students usually remember more information, but I’ve never seen memory included as a factor in intelligence tests or theories. Of course, we can’t just remember facts, we have to correlate and apply them, and outstanding students also have better analytical skills than their classmates.
Some people are naturally good at taking tests. One of my brothers-in-law is a history buff. A history degree is not particularly useful in looking for a career, so when he moved to Illinois, he took the state exam to be licensed as a social worker. He scored in the 90s. This led to a horrible career as a welfare case worker, which he was very glad to leave when offered early retirement 20 years later. But my point is, he had never taken a course in social work or psychology, but scored higher than the average Illinois social worker on the state test because of his test-taking skills and world knowledge.
So skills can trump familiarity (as in the social work exam); discrimination can trump acuity (as in hearing tests, phonetics, and a humming pump); familiarity can increase discrimination because it allows predictability (as in transcription).
But familiarity also decreases discrimination, at least in identifying language sounds. By the time we’re 9 months old, we are already assimilating English phonology and unable to differentiate some sounds that are important to other languages (which is one reason I was better at phonetics than my monolingual classmates: I grew up bilingual and had a repertoire of more sounds as a result). I’ll write about that in another post.
What I really need to do today is replace my stupid pump pressure switch. I think I can get the part at Home Depot.