by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man asked:
I have a question about hearing strategies. Say you’re in a room and you’re trying to understand something. I’m wondering if I should learn how to read lips. It doesn’t seem like it could hurt. Do you need to take a course, or just practice?
How about if you try and guess what’s just been said? I find I do this. After I hear someone say something, and I don’t quite get it all, my brain reviews possibilities until it matches one that makes sense in the context of the situation and what else has been said.
By all means learn to speechread! Speechreading is most important in helping you understand speech better. I have been speechreading all my life. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the floor and staring up at the faces of those giant people (parents) towering above me (at least they sure seemed tall to me way back then) and watching their faces so I could understand what they were saying.
Both my younger daughter and I became good speechreaders when we were tiny tikes. It was a coping strategy we both just naturally picked up from necessity at a very early age. We were both good speechreaders by the time we were 3 or 4.
To become good at speechreading you need to practice. In fact, you need lots of practice. If you are around me you’ll notice I always “stare” at the person with whom I am conversing. That is how I hear and understand what they are saying. Of course, I’m using my residual hearing too, but I’ve constantly been “practicing” speechreading for more than 60 years now.
Taking a speechreading course can help you fast-track your speechreading skills and get you on the right track. Unfortunately, speechreading classes are hard to find—but if you have one in your area, by all means enroll in one.
Speechreading is not perfect by any means. The best estimates are that only around 30% to 35% of English sounds can be speechread. That leaves a lot of room for educated guessing. The more you know of the structure of English, and the topic under discussion, the better your “educated guessing” becomes.
When we speechread, our brains run through the possibilities we see and hear and tries to give us the most likely word we missed. However, it can come up with completely wrong solutions because of several factors.
For example, if we don’t know the context, we can’t put things in context to get the right word. Or, if we have the wrong context, our brains will try to fit what we see (speechread) into this “wrong” context and come up with totally “off the wall” solutions as to what has just been said.
Furthermore, many words in English have identical mouth shapes, although the words sound different (if you could hear them). Thus depending on your mindset at the moment, you may “see” a different word than what was said—and again come up with an “off the wall” interpretation.
We call such words homophenes. The three words “pat”, “bat” and “mat” are examples of homophenes. So are the words “shoot”, “shoes”, “chews”, “juice” and “Jews”. So are the words “queen” and “quiet”. You cannot tell these words apart unless you can either hear the difference, or you are sure you know the context.
“Is this process made easier if you know what sounds people with a rare hearing loss such as a reverse slope hearing loss often miss? So you think, ‘well, I usually can’t hear these sounds, so chances are the word I missed was _____.”
You know, in all the years I have been speechreading myself and all the years I have been teaching and writing about speechreading, this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone ask this question. It’s a wonderful question—and just as those of us with severe reverse slope hearing losses hear “backwards” to those with the common ski-slope losses, so also we also speechread “backwards”—thus there are notable differences. Let me explain.
People with the common ski-slope hearing losses hear lower frequency sounds reasonably well, but do not hear high- frequency sound well or at all.
Furthermore, you need to realize that most of the power or volume of speech is contained in the lower-frequency sounds, while most of the intelligibility in speech is carried in the higher-frequency sounds.
Since people with ski-slope losses hear the lower-frequency sounds, but not the higher-frequency sounds, they generally hear people talking, but can’t understand what they are saying.
This is where speechreading helps them. You see, typically, the higher frequency sounds such as “s”, “f”, “th”, “ch” and “t” (all air hissing around your teeth with your voice box turned off) are relatively easy to see so you can speechread them well. Thus you can fill in the missing sounds that give speech much of its intelligibility and understand what the person is saying.
In contrast, those of us with severe reverse-slope hearing losses don’t hear the lower-frequency sounds (which are formed in the middle or back of the mouth so are hard or impossible to speechread), but we hear the higher-frequency sounds which are also relatively easy to speechread, thus we have more difficulty in speechreading. As a result, we have to concentrate on learning to speechread the “difficult” sounds in order to become good speechreaders.
In any case, even though speechreading is more difficult for us, it is still an indispensable skill to have, and one I’d never want to be without.