I’ll Read Your Lips, You Read Mine: Random Thoughts from a Speechreader by Gael Hannon editor of the Better Hearing Consumer

“Gael, did you know Digby has fleas?” asked my friend as he looked into the fridge for snacks.
“That’s too bad,” I said.
My friend turned back to me, puzzled. “What’s too bad?”
“That the dog has fleas.”
“Who said that?
“You just did.”
“I asked if you’d like a diet pepsi.”
“Oh. Thanks…and glad to hear Digby has no fleas.”   (Not really; the hairy hound had eaten my $1000 hearing aid the year before.  A few fleas would have been a fair payback.)

But, Digby-pepsi, this is the story of my life:  if I can’t see your face, I can’t understand you. I might hear you making words, but I won’t necessarily know what they are.  But look me in the eye, and I’m with you all the way.

It’s a myth that one sense becomes stronger to compensate for a weakened one.  I had an otherwise intelligent friend who asked if my acute sense of smell was the result of my hearing loss.   have absolutely no idea how my nose helps my ears,  but I do know my sense of sight helps fill in what I can’t hear.   And my vision hasn’t improved because of my hearing loss – it’s not so hot either – I just depend on it more.

No matter how good my hearing aids, or how perfect the listening environment, I still need to read faces to “get” what’s being said.   All faces, all the time.  At a dinner party, I need to see the face of each person as  he or she speaks in order to remain totally involved.  If I can’t see speech, I can’t discriminate the consonants – tuck will sound like duck, which will sound like…etc.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to convince a group of slightly inebriated people to speak one at a time, or put their hand up when they wish to speak?  I get whiplash trying to keep up, and every once in a while, I have to thump the table and say, “What the hell we talking about now?”

Most people with hearing loss, regardless of severity, depend on speechreading and other visual cues to some degree.    My 84 year-old dad just got hearing aids, and was shocked to discover that they haven’t cured his hearing loss and that he still needs to use the closed captioning on TV.

Speechreading is a skill that improves with practice. Some people may be naturally better at it, just as some people have a knack for carpentry or music.  Research suggests that women tend to be better speechreaders than men.  (I’m just saying, this is what I read.  Next week’s blog, “Man-Lips”, has more on this.)   But for all people with hearing loss, whether congenital or acquired, speechreading is a skill worth developing.

I learned from an early age, and on my own, to “read” physical clues.   Speechreading is a bit like a live-action puzzle, which we solve by asking a few questions.  What do I see on her face?  What do I hear her saying?  What’s the subject we’re discussing (context)?

Lips – Are they forming consonants or vowels?   Singular or plurals?  Accents?
Eyes – Are they narrowed, or wide? What emotions?
Teeth – Are they clenched or apart? Are they clean?  (Speechreaders really notice this!)
Facial expression – Stern? Calm? Are eyebrows up or down?
Body language – Relaxed? Hands on hips?  Arms folded? Fists clenched?
Gestures – Hands laced or stabbing the air?
Tone of voice – Sharp or giggly?

Put it all together and – eureka!   Comphrehension! This process happens almost without our realizing it, and the more we practice, the better we get.   But listening with hearing loss involves a large energy output, so after a long day of speechreading, people with hearing loss are often exhausted.

I pride myself on being a good speechreader, able to understand most people, most of the time, if they’re facing me.  What’s my worst speechreading nightmare?  A Scotsman, fresh off the boat from the highlands, talking with beer foam on his bushy mustache.  No matter how slowly the wee man might speak, I can nae understand a word!

0 thoughts on “I’ll Read Your Lips, You Read Mine: Random Thoughts from a Speechreader by Gael Hannon editor of the Better Hearing Consumer

  1. Lipreading is a great TOOL to enhance communication, but it’s not a great way to communicate. It’s a lot of work. They make it look so easy on TV with the expert lipreaders like Sue Thomas working for the FBI. What a lot of people don’t realize is in real life, the FBI sits you in front of a video, they magnify the lips and play it over and over. Who gets a play back in real life, or the magnified lips? When you say you lip read, the expectation on us is unreal.

    But I disagree with you about the senses. Well not entirely. I think you’re right that they don’t “improve.” My sense of sight isn’t so great either. But I think my observation skills are better than most. I don’t know what you would call that. It’s not sense of sight, but how you make use of sight. I notice things in the environment that others don’t, because I need to be aware of what I can’t hear. Do you know what I mean? I can’t hear birds, but I notice the branches of trees moving so I know they are there, and so I know not to stand under the tree to avoid being crapped on– and then later someone will ask how I knew the bird was there. It’s that kind of thing.

  2. I know exactly what u mean Kim. I am extremely sensitive to picking up my observations of people, places and things. I can sense danger before others can. My sense of smell is keen. I smell smoke, gas or anything different in the air, way before others will even acknowledge smelling a bit it coming from anywhere. I am very good at reading people, the bad vs. the good person without even speaking to them. I have the same thing when communicating on line. Some people call me very judgemental, however, I’ve been correct the majority of the time concerning my sense of people

  3. I love Gael’s blog… I’m a lip/speechreader and without being able to see people speak I’m lost. I wish technology helped me to hear, but it doesn’t, so I’ve relied on lipreading since even before I knew I had a hearing loss. I didn’t know I knew how to do it (the doctor that diagnosed my hearing loss in grade school told my mother I was lipreading), but because I was so young when my hearing loss started, my brain just kicked in and did it for me, so by the time I was out of high school I was very adept at speechreading. And, as someone who has depended heavily on seeing speech to understand, I can tell you that it’s amazing, but also is very imperfect and only works with some people. I’ve qualified for cochlear implants in both ears, but even with so little hearing the surgeon and audiologist at Mayo Clinic say I am still doing much with little, and I have to believe that is so because of relying on my speechreading and other naturally learned skills, picked up along the way of progressive hearing loss that spans over 4 decades, and nothing else.

    I disagree that our other senses are not heightened when we are lacking in one sense. I’ve always been very visual and notice things that others sometimes miss. I’m very good at inferring, anticipating, and have skills I can’t even name. I credit the experience of losing my hearing with a big part of these skill — not all, but a very big part.

    Just yesterday I was riding in an open-air train car. It was so loud that I had to put my ear plugs in (due to hyperacusis I use ear plugs to guard against pain in overly loud situations) and I couldn’t hear my daughter’s voice at all, but I realized I was speechreading her just as well as if I didn’t have ear plugs in. No, speechreading isn’t perfect, it’s tiring and a lot of work, but it’s all I have and even with no hearing, if I can see you, odds are I can understand you. Of course I have my own speechreading nightmares!! Not everyone can be read!! I really struggled with the Irish accent this past June.

  4. I soooooo identify with “if I can’t see you I can’t hear you”. I’ve observed that sibilant sounds, unlike low-pitched sounds, just don’t go around corners. I’m glad my cousin Michele Thomas Linder turned me on to this site. I’ll be doing a lot of reading. Thanks for being here!

  5. I have to say speech reading is a fabulous tool which I have developed due to being hearing impaired. Like other have said before it’s not perfect, especially with someone who has a thick accent. However having said that I think it is a very useful tool. I know in loud situations such as a nightclub or concert, I am able to understand people better than my normal hearing friends. I disagree also about hearing loss not making other senses take over. I have a strong sense of smell and like someone has said before, I can smell smoke and other things before anyone else can.

    However since getting the cochlear implant, I have found I don’t have to rely on speech reading as much as before. I can hear people talking behind me, I can hear the radio and I don’t have to look at people’s faces as much as before. Of course I am not saying I don’t speech read anymore, because I do, just not as often as I did before I got the cochlear implant. My audiologist even said that even though I can hear almost normally, I should try not to lose my speech reading skills.

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