by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© December, 2011; Revised August, 2020
One person asked:
I am looking for information on lip-reading—it’s accuracy and associated difficulties. I understand that lip-reading really is very hard and not particularly accurate.
Speechreading is a fascinating subject. Lip-reading is the old term for what we now more accurately call speechreading.
You are right. Speechreading is neither easy nor accurate—but it is indispensable to me and multitudes of hard of hearing people. We use it every day in order to effectively communicate with others.
I am a “native” speechreader, having had to speechread from the day I was born. Also, I am one of the few people that are specifically trained to be speechreading instructors. What I’ll be saying comes from my 70+ years of speechreading every day and from my experience teaching speechreading and hearing loss coping skills to others.
Speechreading is not normally used by itself. It is just one of three hearing loss coping skills we use to communicate effectively. The other two are wearing hearing aids/using assistive listening devices and practicing effective coping strategies.
One lady asked, “I was wondering if it is possible to speechread what people are saying if you can’t hear them at all? I am finding that if I can hear them even a little bit, I can speechread a lot of what they are saying. but if I can’t hear them at all, I have a real hard time making out words. Does this make sense?”
This lady was right on target. Typically you do not want to use speechreading alone. Whenever possible, you want to combine your speechreading skills with any residual hearing you may have. When you do this , wonderful things happen.
You can often speechread short remarks quite well without hearing a sound, but for longer conversations even a bit of residual hearing makes understanding ever so much easier.
Thus, the real secret to speechreading is to combine it with any auditory signals you can hear. In other words, use all the speechreading skills you have, plus do everything you can to increase your residual hearing. This means using amplification—hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive listening devices, sound field systems, etc.
When we both see and hear the speaker, we understand much more than if we just see or just hear the speaker. This is because our brains take everything we see, everything we hear and everything we know from previous experience and put it all together—and hopefully we come out with a pretty good understanding of what was said—and typically this is exactly what happens.
For example, speechreading training with no voice does not benefit as much as when using low voice (residual hearing) since most of us use visual cues as a supplement to speech, not as a substitute for it.
Let’s look at just how dramatically speechreading results improve when combined with residual hearing.
By using residual hearing alone, or speechreading alone, you might get about 20-30% of the conversation, but when using both your residual hearing and speechreading at the same time, your comprehension soars. You can expect to get 80% or even more.
For example, in a study at the University of Manchester researchers found that hard of hearing people just using their residual hearing understood 21% of speech. If they combined their residual hearing with either a hearing aid or with speechreading, they could understand 64% of speech. This is a significant improvement. However, if they used their residual hearing and both hearing aids and speechreading, their speech comprehension soared to 90%! (1)
My friend BJ found that when wearing her hearing aids and not speechreading, she got 16% of words right. With speechreading and no hearing aid, she got 34% of words correct. However, when she wore both her hearing aids and speechread, she understood not just the expected 50% but a massive 88%!
In another study, using single syllable words, speechreading alone yielded about 12% correct. Hearing, but distorted through speech filters yielded results of 24%. With both together we might expect to understand 36% (12 + 24). However, the score was more than double that—a whopping 79%! (2)
Therefore, even though we don’t see all speech movements, nor do we hear all speech sounds, taking the two together, we will understand far more than if we only use speechreading or our residual hearing. That shows the incredible value of speechreading.
English is not a particularly easy language to speechread. Some languages are much easier (and some are even harder). The best estimates are that 30% to 35% of English sounds can be speechread. In order for a sound to be easily speechread, it must be formed on the lips and/or in the front of the mouth.
Unfortunately for us, we form many English sounds in the middle of our mouths. Others come from the back of our mouths and even in our throats. These latter are absolutely impossible to speechread.
As a result, a perfect speechreader only would be able to speechread about one third of what is said. They guess at the rest, taking into consideration their understanding of the spoken language, the body language of the speaker and the subject under discussion. Some people are remarkably good at guessing but no one is perfect.
I know some remarkable speechreaders. Hilda is one of them. She is totally deaf but you’d never know it from the way she seems to understand speech. She is just awesome! However, even the best of speechreaders can lose it. For example, one day we were at a seminar together. The speaker chose as her topic, things she admired about each speechreading instructor present. She mentioned Hilda first. When Hilda saw her name on the speaker’s lips it so totally threw her that she wasn’t able to speechread a single thing from that speech! Now if that happens to the best—think of what it does to the rest of us.
Another thing you should know about speechreading is that during normal speech, we make approximately 13 to 15 speech movements per second. However, our eyes can only pick up 8 or 9 of these movements. (3) Thus it is impossible to speechread perfectly. If a person is talking at a normal rate, we will miss between one quarter and one half of what he says just because our brains can’t keep up. It sure helps us if the speaker talks more slowly or leaves long pauses to give our brains a chance to catch up.
In order for speechreading to be effective we have to know the subject being discussed. Hearing people tell us to get the meaning from the context. This only works when we know the context. What happens when we can’t hear enough to figure out the context? Let me give you an example.
Many words in English look the same on a speaker’s lips but have different sounds. We call these words homophenes. When we can’t hear the sounds, we cannot tell these words apart.
Let’s say I approach a group of hunters in the fall and I see the word “shoot” on one person’s lips. I assume they are talking about hunting or shooting and I chime in with something in like vein.
They look at me surprised/perplexed/bemused. My remarks were totally off the wall to them. Why? They were talking about their footwear, not about hunting! You see, the words “shoot,” “shoes,” “chews,” “juice,” “June” and “Jews” look exactly the same on a person’s lips. I thought I knew the context from their garb and the words I saw, but I would have had it completely wrong.
There are numerous homophenes in English. Words as different as “queen” and “white” look the same on a person’s lips. So do the three words in the sentence, “Buy my pie.”
It becomes obvious that trying to figure out which word is the right one is very difficult if you don’t know ahead of time what the context is. It should be equally obvious now that the estimate of up to 35% of English words being easy to speechread is overstated since many of these words are ambiguous when speechread.
Some people are very easy to speechread. They are a pleasure to talk to. Thank God for these people! However, be aware that about 10% of the population move their lips in such a way that it is absolutely impossible to speechread even one word they say. Most people fall somewhere in between. When you do well speechreading one person, your family/friends/co-workers might think that you can do that with anyone. This is just not true.
Another factor to consider is that we are not all created equal in our ability to speechread. I have found that some people just do not seem to be able to speechread at all. Studies show that only 23% of hard of hearing people become effective speechreaders. (4) That means that a whopping 77% need to use other means of coping along with using speechreading.
It is interesting (but not fair) that women on the average are much better speechreaders than men. This is just the way it is. We men have to struggle much more than the fairer sex, yet it is men that lose their hearing sooner and more severely than women. I am one of the best male speechreaders I know, but there are women that make me look like I was still in kindergarten in speechreading.
A downside of speechreading, and one that is not obvious, is that it is very tiring, especially with someone who is hard to speechread in the first place. Fatigue is the constant companion of most hard of hearing people whether they realise it or not. Speechreading takes enormous concentration. We have to work very hard to understand what is being said. We must follow every lip movement, every facial expression, every gesture, to try to find meaning in what you are saying. We cannot relax our eyes for even a moment and have a nice easy conversation like people with normal hearing can.
Speechreading is not merely a matter of just watching speech movements, but includes considerable mental effort in making sense from an incompletely perceived message. In fact, I’ve heard our brains have to work five times as hard to understand speech as do those of people with normal hearing. In the course of a day, our brains have done as much mental gymnastics as a person with normal hearing does in a whole week! No wonder we get tired so fast!
Another downside of speechreading is that we spend so much of our time just trying to understand the words the person is saying that we can easily miss the meaning they are trying to communicate.
In spite of its many limitations, speechreading is an incredible gift to those of us who are hard of hearing. You may be surprised to know that we can sometimes speechread accents and tell where a person comes from without hearing a sound! It sure throws people when a deaf person says, “I can’t hear a sound, but you are speaking with an Australian accent” or whatever.
Speechreading sure comes in handy for communicating through closed windows, from across noisy rooms or when you want to talk with someone in a “quiet zone.”
Many of us hard of hearing people need to use speechreading all the time in our day to day interactions with other people. I, for one, would never want to be without it!
(1) Shearer, Catherine. 1988. Living with a Hearing Loss. Level I, Student Notes. p. 3.
(2) Alpiner, Jerome G. and Patricia A. McCarthy. 1987. Rehabilitative Audiology: Children And Adults. Williams & Wilkins. Baltimore, MD. pp. 320-321.
(3) Alpiner. p. 306.
(4) Hardy, Richard E. & John G. Cull. 1974. Educational And Psychosocial Aspects Of Deafness. Charles C Thomas, Publisher. Springfield, Illinois. p. 66.