Why lip reading isn’t a golden ticket

Copyright: mistac / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: mistac / 123RF Stock Photo

Nigel and I have a private shorthand for those moments when he knows that I haven’t a clue what he just said but I’m not admitting it.  I know I should ALWAYS admit it but saying “sorry, I missed that” a thousand times a day gets very wearing.

The shorthand is “Lions in the Sky” because once, aeons ago, we were in the car together and he pointed out (something) in the sky.  It sounded like “lion” to me, but that didn’t make a lot of sense.  A lion?  In the sky? I couldn’t see anything in the sky, much less a lion, so I copped out and made some confirmatory response.  You know the sort.  “Oh, yeah”.  “Mmm”.

Later that day we were watching some gliders and he made some comment about the one we had seen earlier.  Oh!  It had been a GLIDER in the sky.  That made much more sense.  I admitted my earlier confusion, we had a laugh about it and the expression made it onto the list of marital shorthand expressions that communicate something perfectly – in this case “you’ve not understood a single thing I’ve said”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lip reading recently, about how hard it is and how much of an inexact science.  “Gliders” and “lions” don’t look exactly the same on the lips, but they look similar and if you are glancing, as I was, at the side of the driver’s face in a car you’d have to be pretty clever to spot the difference.

A few weeks ago I was walking our dog, Izzy, on a favourite route, which is a gravel track round a local reservoir.  A cyclist approached at speed and I leapt out of the way, into the bracken and nettles by the side of the path (never argue with cyclists….).  The man sped by.  We were stood there in the undergrowth, Izzy and I, when a runner appeared, so I stayed off the path for a few seconds longer.  The runner called out “not many bags around here”.  What?  Bags?  Might she mean poo bags?  But why should she say that?  She’s looking at me expectantly so I say “sorry, I didn’t hear you”.  She tries again.  Same result.  “Sorry”, I say “I’m deaf”.  By this point the lovely lady is jogging backwards, still looking at me, but she now realises that the situation is hopeless, grins, waves cheerily and turns round to jog on.  Suddenly I get it.  (I know, I’m a bit slow).  “Bikes”, I call out delightedly “you don’t see many BIKES around here”.  The woman, by now realising I am both deaf and crazy, turns again, smiles, nods, gives a thumbs up sign and disappears.  You have to laugh, but try separating “bikes” from “bags” on the lips.  Go on, have a look in the mirror……

The strange mental paralysis when the brain fixes on something it thinks it has heard/lip read but that is completely wrong, as in the situation above, will be well known to all readers with hearing loss.  One part of your brain is saying “x” and the other part is saying “Don’t be ridiculous, it can’t be”.  A few weeks ago a friend produced such an effect, when she announced that she had been watching “what do ISIS do all day?” on the television.  Of course, it was “what do ARTISTS do all day?” but it had me momentarily very perplexed.

Last week I attended a new hearing support group, run by my friend Susan, a retired lip reading teacher.  For part of the time we were practicing lip reading.  Susan read out a passage about Skipton, my local town, moving her lips naturally but without making a sound.  There was a hush as the group concentrated feverishly on her lips and facial movements.  Some bits were fairly easy and it quickly became clear that the piece was a potted history of the town.  “Domesday Book” is quite easy to lip read, as is “civil war”.  Then there was a bit we couldn’t decipher at all, then “top of the High Street” then more undecipherable stuff.  Susan repeated the difficult section.  No improvement.  At the top of our High Street there happens to be a very fine church and a well-preserved medieval castle, but we couldn’t see “church” or “castle” on Susan’s lips (both would have been quite easy to spot).  To cut a long story short we soldiered on for a while with no success then finally, after much prompting and hints from Susan, worked out that the crucial missing word was “mill”.  Of course!  (This area was big on mills in the past).

“Mill” is a funny word to lip read.  We should have seen the “muh” (although that could have been “buh” or “puh” – they look identical).  But the “-ill” bit disappears in normal speech.  Also, we had seen “top of the High Street” but missed a crucial “near” (“near the top of the High Street”), which had our brains fixating on churches and castles quite inappropriately.  If you say “near” into a mirror, on its own, it looks as if you might spot it in a sentence but in real (speaking) life, if you put it before “the top of the High Street” it virtually disappears.

Once we had “mill”, though, we were off – “High Corn Mill”, “thirteenth century”, “providing for the whole of Skipton” – it all fell into place.  Oh, the power of context in the workings of the brain.  Give the brain a clue and things become much easier.  (Mind you, give it a wrong clue, like when we had missed the word “near” and were fixated on churches and castles, and you can be spinning helplessly forever).

You could say that these exercises without any sound at all are unnecessarily difficult, and it’s true that all of us in the group hear a lot of sound, especially vowel sounds, in real life.  When Susan sits across from us and reads the passage out “with voice” we can all understand her quite well.  However, the silent exercise DOES replicate the problems experienced by everyone in the group when there is background noise, whether that is a lot of people talking at once or the noise you get inside a car or the coffee machine in a café.  In those situations my brain can no longer filter out the speech sounds from the other noise and I’m almost completely reliant on lip reading, with all its imprecisions.

The point of this post is this.  People who don’t have to do it sometimes speak of lip reading as a panacea.  But it isn’t.  It’s an enormously useful weapon in our armoury but it’s not a golden ticket to understanding speech.

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15 thoughts on “Why lip reading isn’t a golden ticket

  1. I have found all these comments interesting as I have just joined a lip reading course. I am sure LR courses probably help to a certain degree, but at the end of the day it all depends in how well the speaker pronounces the words, is not talking too fast, moving their head etc. etc.

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    1. Hello Patricia. Yes, all of that can make lip reading hard, or sometimes impossible. Hope you enjoy the class. I find the best thing about a lip reading class is just the fun of being with other people in the same boat, finding the funny side in misunderstandings.

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  2. I’ve lost all confidence using lip-reading now and am back to pencil and paper, or avoiding others. After years of struggling to lip-read people and then being defeated by the fact they refuse to accept I am deaf because I speak, I’ve abandoned LR as a viable tool of access. These days communication is totally minimal, I ask for stuff in shops, note the price at the till, that’s it, no point in trying to pass the time with anyone, it’s the same if you go out and socialise nobody bothers to make any effort for you. At best you are advised to leave mainstream where it is and play the Deafie with sign language but that is restricting me even more, isolation seeming preferable. Have a text life leave the rest behind. They are not really the sort of people I would socialise as a hearing person with, and I’m not saying that in a derogatory way, but because of huge differences of background, cultural, social, and educational, so it really isn’t worth an effort trying at this late stage to change horses in mid-stream and end up just the same…. Attending LR classes is almost fun for the short time they operate, but after that, back to square one again, I just don’t see the point at all in it now. I don’t think it actually works for most of us, it is entirely dependent on areas beyond the class’ control, so you are ill equipped to deal with issues when they present, so they encourage ‘like with like’ but cliques, age restriction, and db decide if that works.. What you have are a few good lip-readers who suggest the other 85% are as good as they are – that’s all. It is awful awareness, and unhelpful, given LR is THE most difficult skill to acquire, deaf or hearing. The failure rate suggests that is true too. The only answer for most of us is…. hearing.

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    1. Hello At The Rim. You sound very gloomy about communication, which makes me feel very sad even though it seems that stopping trying is your positive choice. Maybe I’m one of the small group you mention that “get on” with lip reading, but I do find it helpful. It keeps me in touch with people and makes me feel part of the “normal” world. Still, there are so many other ways to communicate these days (including via your blog) so, compared to people just a few decades ago, we do at least have other choices. Best wishes. Vera.

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    1. Yes! And why do people drop their voices just after saying “you’ll never guess what?”, leaving us to look blank when everyone else has moved on to responding “no, surely not”.

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  3. It took me a few times of reading that, Alison, but I got there in the end. I think sharing these things with people who can hear, and getting them all laughing, is an excellent way to bring home how we struggle sometimes and are frequently thinking “what? what? surely not?” before we get to the right translation.

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  4. One Sunday morning Keith asked me if I wanted “the back of my legs?” …… Que? “Do I want the back of my legs what?” I asked. Deep, patient sigh (if only he had a pound for every one!) before repeating, with greater enunciation, “Do you want bacon & eggs?” Many years later it still makes us laugh 🙂

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  5. Yes, lip reading does not help every time and it is alright as you say if the person is facing you and near you, and using voice but if they are not in the right position then it is useless! Mind you then you can have some very interesting conversations!

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  6. This is really interesting and has had me standing in front of the mirror trying to say “mill” and “glider” and “near”. Actually, it reminds me of the problems that Paul sometimes has with understanding French. Even though I would describe him as being fluent in French, if he does not have the context for something he is listening to, he can very quickly be completely at sea, even if he has more than half of the individual words that make up the sentence that he has heard. We have always said that I understand foreign languages globally, missing some of the detail, but that he understands the detail, sometimes losing the big picture. Wood and trees and all that. I’m saying all of this, not to poke fun at him, but because I wonder whether with lip-reading, as with foreign language-learning, different brains respond in different ways to partial comprehension?

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    1. What an interesting thought! I’d definitely be a big picture person, and I would say that the big picture (context) is essential to lip reading, but perhaps there are other deaf people out there reading lips using a completely different strategy. I’ll ask some of them and see what they think.

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  7. Aha! Deaf moment #3064!!
    My family have a saying when my expression is blank . . . but how do you know how to go to golf?!!
    I was quite young and listening to my father and his friend talking, when up popped my question . . . but how do you know how to go to golf!! . . . they weren’t talking about golf or directions. They looked very confused at me . . . I think that’s how I look most of the time!!

    The best one (Barnacle Bills Electrical Milk)
    Again on the school bus with friends, one girl says wouldn’t it be funny if the farmer was allergic to milk.
    2nd Girl says – pardon.
    So I repeat the question for her – Barnacle Bills Electrical Milk?! (Barnacle Bills is a fish and chips fast food chain in Australia).
    Again, they all look so confused . . . let’s all be more like me!!

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