I am trying, I just wish I was as good as they are.

How do they manage it? How do people in movies lipread with ease and certainty? I can’t. It makes me feel totally inadequate and stupid when I watch something like Sue Thomas PI, or a movie with Marlee Matlin in. Both Deaf actors can lipread with ease apparently. I can’t and I haven’t met anyone who can. I know I’m not very good at lipreading, my mum is better than I am, but surely I can’t be that bad at it? If you look up any article on lipreading they all say that only 30-40% of words can be read, and that’s in ideal conditions.

Without my hearing aids, in a soundproofed booth, using both ears, I can make out 12% of one or two syllable words played over a loudspeaker. With my hearing aids, I can make out 38% of sentences played over a loudspeaker.

By “make out” I mean guess. In everyday life I can supplement this with lip reading.

The idea behind lip reading is that each sound has its own facial and lip/tongue position. Many sounds have the same face position, so you need extra information to work out what sound is being said. Sometimes you can see the tongue position, but mostly you can’t. Sounds that look the same are “m” and “b” as in man and ban, and sake and cake. P and B look identical on the mouth, as do G and T and D. S and Z, F and V.

You need to add more clues to get the sense of what is being said.
You need to know the context, are we talking ordering dessert? Then the chances are the word is cake. Are we pleading? Then it’s more likely to be sake.

You need to look at the face, what emotion are they showing? Happy? Sad? Angry? What does the body language say? What are we talking about, what’s the context?

Everyday life adds a few challenges. Most people speak more quickly than the voices in the audiologists recordings, there’s background noise, bad lighting, regional accents and phrasing, obscured faces, distorted faces, mouths full of food, – not only hard to lip read but pretty gross to look at.

A hard of hearing friend told me of a conversation where she thought she had been told by the other person that her son was married last week, so she congratulated her. Wrong, the son was buried.

Lip reading is tiring. It’s hard to look at someone’s face intently for a long while. The speaker can feel intimidated by your attention, they can also feel worried by the lack of eye contact, plenty of face contact, but little reassuring eye contact.

So, forgive me if I misunderstand what you have said, if I guess wrongly. I am trying so hard, I really am.


6 responses »

  1. I suspect that lipreading in hollywood is like anything else. a complete fabrication 🙂 At least thats what I tell myself when I see all those "perfect" bodies !

    I can appreciate the difficulty with lipreading, there is no way just from mouth shape alone you can distinguish between sounded and unsounded letter combinations.
    Even when there is no hearing problem involved my poor other half has problems with this.
    He gets funny looks when ordering veal. His accent means he doesn't sound his "V"s. it sounds like he's asking for a feel ! He had a big problem in B&Q when replacing our air bricks , he wanted vents they kept showing him 6 ft tall panels of wood (fence!)

    I sometimes imagine it must be like constantly talking in physics equations , where you have to think , what does the E stand for in this equation? is it Energy , Electromotive force , Electric field?

    sometimes it is obvious , other times it does your head in if there's no context


  2. Hmmm, lip reading. I didn’t know I did this until an audiologist pointed it out to me. Once he did, it was so obvious to me.

    Sometimes I can lipread with ease, depending on context, how much I can hear the person speaking. I have eavesdropped on a few conversations from across a room when the people speaking ‘have good lips.’ What people will say when they think nobody can hear them. 😉

    Sometimes it’s impossible though. Extreme eg: I once had to stop a conversation with a Muslim woman who was wearing a niqaab. I think she was asking for directions but with her soft voice and me not being able to read her lips for cues, communication was impossible. I can only hope she understood when I said, ‘I’m hard of hearing,’ pointed her towards someone else and walked on. I felt so rude.

    Which reminds me… have you ever been mistaken for being rude for ignoring someone when really you just did not hear them or realise that they were talking to you or whatever. I hate that.

    I’m keeping my eyes open for a lip reading course. Apparently they are very helpful. Have you ever taken one?

    – Marnie

  3. lip reading classes in the UK were during the day, when I was at work. Here there is one during the day time, but its not continuous, just a short course and you have to be over 55.

    I practise in front of a mirror, but its demoralising.

    Am often mistaken for being rude. We even have signs up a work explaining that I cant hear and am not ignoring them.

    I could never lipread across a room. You are better at it than I am.

  4. Hi – I find that context matters greatly! But at the same time, some people ARE much easier to lipread than others. Even with people I know well, I sometimes get it wrong!! I suppose the thing is that as long as people are understanding, they’ll usually give you time to work it out or change to a different method. Perhaps it would be worth asking people to rephrase the sentence?

  5. I loved this post. I too wonder about those movies where people can lip read someone a mile away through binoculars. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I lip read, but not well.

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