I’ll Read Your Lips, You Read Mine: Random Thoughts from a Speechreader

Gael Hannan
September 27, 2011

“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!

  1. Gael,
    Well writtn words on speech reading. I have had many patients, through the years, that have brought up discussions on this topic. You have done an excellent job in providing thoughts. I enjoyed your part about the Scotsman!! LOL
    Keep the articles coming.

  2. I love this, and will definitely share it with all of my students! And….. you actually made me laugh out loud!

    Wonderfully helpful!
    Jo DeLuzio

  3. I’m a very good speechreader myself, but on my recent trip to Ireland I encountered your worst speechreading nightmare on more than one occasion!! It’s been my experience, English speaking foreign countries pose more comprehension problems than do those where a foreign language is spoken.

  4. You’ve got this covered well, Gael! A few weeks ago, out of idle curiosity, I asked “What’s the name of the weekend’s NASCAR race?” and heard this answer: “The Broken Hose 500!” Thought that was a little odd and repeated it back–and after lots of unmuffled laughter heard correctly that it was “The Poconos 500.” Well, mine was funnier anyhow!

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