by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady explained,
I am new to the world of hearing loss. I want to know if there is a way to learn lipreading. How did you learn? Did you just watch people? I am trying to do that but getting frustrated. I am sure that is normal. My problem lies when everyone is talking, and one person is trying to talk to me, and I simply can’t hear them. I asked one colleague to repeat herself 3 times yesterday and just couldn’t figure it out. I end up getting embarrassed and stressed out! I just feel defeated. I think if I could read lips, it could help me in that situation.
Most definitely, speechreading can help you communicate better. However, be aware that learning to speechread (lipreading was the older term) takes time. It is easy to get frustrated. One reason for this is because you can only readily see about 30% of English sounds on a person’s lips. The rest of the sounds are formed behind the teeth, or even in the throat where they are totally invisible. Thus there is a lot of educated guessing involved.
Another frustrating reality is that there is a lot of ambiguity in speechreading. Several words may look the same on a person’s lips, but sound different. We call these words homophenes. For example, the words “bat”, “mat” and “pat” all look identical on a person’s lips. So too, do such different words as “queen” and “white”. So do the words “shoes”, “shoot”, “June”, “Jews” and “juice”. Thus it really helps if you know what subject people are talking about so your brain can figure out the correct word to fit the context.
A third reason speechreading can be frustrating is that some people are animated and move their lips a lot—and thus are easy to lipread—while others don’t move their lips much, or move them in ways that makes it impossible to speechread even one syllable! (You’ll come across the odd person like that.)
Because of these limitations, you need to have proper expectations of what speechreading can and cannot do for you. It will definitely help you, but it definitely is not perfect. So don’t be hard on yourself when you don’t catch something.
Now, let’s address your question of how do you learn to speechread. My first rule is always watch people when they are talking to you. Some people, such as myself and my younger daughter, learned to speechread almost from the day we were born, because we were born with significant hearing losses. I’ve always had to watch people’s faces in order to know what they were saying. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of doing just that in order to try to “hear” grown-ups talking to me from “way up there” when I was just a little guy sitting on the floor. I’ve had lots of practice speechreading—I’ve been practicing every day of my life and yet I’m still far from perfect. However, in spite of all its shortcomings, I’d never want to be without speechreading as it is my main means of communicating. It’s that useful.
My second rule is to combine your residual hearing with speechreading. This is the most effective way. You do far better using both your eyes and your ears, rather than trying to use speechreading without hearing any sound (although I do that a lot too—but remember, I’ve have more than 60 years of experience doing this).
Third, take a speechreading class if you can. Unfortunately, speechreading classes seem to be few and far apart here in the USA. All is not lost however. There are speechreading CDs available that will still help you immensely. The best one of which I know is called “Seeing and Hearing Speech“. (I think I have all or most of the speechreading CDs produced in the English language from anywhere in the world. In fact, I know most of the authors of them.)
When talking to one person in group situations, get as close as you can to the person. Make sure you are face to face and looking at each other and that there is adequate light on the other person’s face. It that situation, speechreading is typically quite easy. Furthermore, when you are that close, you will catch some sounds which will often dramatically increase your understanding of what is being said.
Don’t feel bad, or embarrassed when you have to ask for a repeat (or two) or you miss something entirely. That happens to me too—even with all my speechreading practice and skills. Just two days ago I was talking to a clerk in a store and couldn’t get more than maybe 10% of what he was saying. That’s just the way it is depending on how they move their lips. It really helps to have an animated “face” to speechread.
The Speechreading CD I mentioned above has a number of people on it. They range in animation from very animated (one girl is wonderfully easy to speechread—not to mention, easy on the eyes—while one guy is not animated at all and is quite difficult to speechread.
I recommend that you search out the easy “faces” and practice with them first. This will really boost your confidence in your ability to speechread, then go on to those that are a bit harder to speechread and leave the hardest to the last.
One cool thing about this CD is that you can learn with just the visuals, or can add in any degree of sound (voice). And if you need to slow things down, you can set it to half speed. This allows you to better see all the mouth movements that typically go by so fast you may miss the little nuances at normal speed.
I wish you well as you learn to speechread better.