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.