Jamaica Inn and Speech Intelligibility

I’m Cornish born and bred, so I was really looking forward to watching the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn this week. I started to feel a little less warmly about it when I heard how little was actually filmed in Cornwall (in fact, a lot was filmed near us in Yorkshire!), and was even more concerned when reports of problems with the sound came out.

I’ve watched a little of the first episode, but unfortunately I’m in the camp of “people who turned off because they couldn’t hear”. I thought I might be at an advantage, what with understanding the accent and dialect, but even that was decidedly iffy, as Kernow King wrote in the Guardian.

I’m undecided whether there were “sound problems” or if the issue was just that the actors barely opened their mouths. The whole episode does, however, bring into light an important point about how vital it is that we can understand what is being said – not just on TV but in everyday life. We take good sound quality on TV for granted, and we tend to be the same in real life – unless the sound is especially bad, in our visually oriented society we take it for granted, and don’t think about the thought and effort that has gone in behind the scenes to make it work.

Jargon Buster: What is Speech Intelligibility?

“Speech intelligibility” is essentially how much of the spoken word we can comprehend. It’s affected by things such as the level of background noise (it’s easier to hear someone talking in a quiet room than next to a busy road, or in a club or pub, for example), and the acoustics of a room. Think of a very reverberant space, such as a church, compared to talking to someone in your living room – the latter is probably far better, because of the shorter reverberation time.

Why speech intelligibility matters – really matters.

You may well have the experience, now, of listening to the TV and needing to put the subtitles on. Unfortunately, real life isn’t subtitled. It’s unthinkable that you would pay for a theatre ticket and not be able to hear what the actors were saying, but so often, in our everyday lives, we put up with poor conditions.  We spend our time in noisy, poorly designed restaurants where we have to lean in and shout to be able to converse, but the worst that comes of this is perhaps fatigue and annoyance.

For me, the place where speech intelligibility is an absolutely critical issue is in the acoustic design of schools. It’s proven that educational outcomes can be directly linked to acoustic conditions, which makes sense – the better you can hear the teacher, the more you’ll learn. But it matters in the workplace too – easier communication, reduced listener fatigue, and perhaps even fewer professional errors due to miscommunication, could be ascribed to getting the acoustic design right in the first place.

 A missed opportunity

We are a hugely visually oriented society, so when we design a new space, the attention and kudos often goes to how it looks. It’s time for us to start thinking more about how spaces sound, and whether they work for their intended purpose in ALL ways. It’s far easier, and more cost effective, to incorporate acoustic design at the planning stage rather than to have to “bolt on” remedial treatments when something goes wrong.

If you’re designing a new office, school, restaurant, performance space or any other room where speech intelligibility matters, be sure to talk to an acoustic consultant early in the process. The value to your project in terms of the quality you achieve could be enormous – at the extreme end of the scale, it can save money and even lives.

The world works better when it sounds good. Let’s use the Jamaica Inn debacle as a springboard to awareness, and focus more on getting it right first time.