Lip-reading – The Art of Guess Work

Written by E


Caught in between two worlds, my story is not uncommon. Deaf, but not fully culturally Deaf. A deaf person who speaks well, to the point that D/deaf and hearing individuals often mistook me to be hearing.

This is not an article to teach you about how to lip-read. This is just me sharing my personal experience. A slice of life of one individual among billions.

The D/deaf population are a minority. We live in a world that views D/deaf as mentally incompetent, as being less in value, less in talent, less in capability to those who are hearing. A world that prefers speech as a method of communication, and refuses to recognize sign language as equal to the written and spoken language.

And so from a very young age, I was trained to lip-read. Raised to be like a hearing person, while still being painfully, obviously deaf. My deafness is quite clear during social interactions and relationships, simply because of one key ingredient to human interaction – communication.

We are not just a minority, we are a linguistic minority. Much like the current D/deaf population in the past and present, chances are, the strong emphasis on lip-reading over sign language will continue in the future. I am not pessimistic, but I understand humanity too well to hope for a perfect society among broken people.

But ah yes, lip-reading. As if the words spoken could be “read” on the mouth as easily one would read a book. The success of lip-reading, contrary to what one would believe, does not depend wholly on the skill of the individual who is depending on it to understand and/or participate in the dynamic conversations around them. Some sources say about 30% of the words being spoken can be accurately understood through lip-reading. Which leaves 70% (a large part of the conversation) to educated guesses on what is being spoken. If you don’t believe me, look it up.

There are many factors that affect the success of lip-reading, which includes, but is not limited to: the number of individuals (including the lip-reader) participating, the energy level of the speaker (excited, tired, angry, calm, etc.), pronunciation (yes, we can figure out when a person has accent, because obviously, the way one forms words with their mouths affect the sound of words being spoken), lighting, the energy level of the lip-reader, surroundings (e.g. the environment, the space between people)…the list goes on. When it comes to lip-reading, I found it helped if I knew or successfully guessed the context or subject of the matter being discussed in conversations.

Yet the skill of the lip-reader plays a small, small role. Much of it is guess work, rapidly filling in the blanks while absorbing as much visual information as we can. We not only focus on your mouth, we take in your facial expressions, body language, and gauge the rapidly changing moods and tone overall throughout the conversation. All this through milliseconds, seconds, stretching onto minutes. Heaven forbid that the conversation stretches on for an hour or more!

As noted previously, successful lip-reading depends on multiple external factors. Trust me – even if the environment is perfect, the pronunciation of the speaker perfect – many words look the same. We will miss words, there will be gaps that we mentally process and continually tax ourselves to fill – not because of our incompetence, or inability, but because it’s simply impossible to capture every word accurately through lip-reading alone. We try our best anyway – in school, in work, in routine doctor checkups, when asking for customer help at a store…

So please, if you meet a D/deaf person, do not act like it is the hardest thing in the world to repeat yourself. Do not overemphasize the way you pronounce the words, because it actually distorts what you are saying. Do not yell. Face the person you are speaking with. If there is another person present, don’t pass over the D/deaf individual and talk to anyone next to them to answer or discuss with you on their behalf.

Last but not least, don’t try to experiment by speaking without your voice – the way you pronounce words becomes unintelligible – not to mention it is very rude. I had a (hearing) friend who did this, and I was wondering why all of the sudden he was not pronouncing words normally during our conversation. There was something off, and having had this “trick” done to me numerous times by friends, strangers and acquaintances, I suspected what he was doing, but gave him the benefit of doubt.

However, it wasn’t until another person (hearing) told him that it was quite disrespectful and to converse with me normally as he would with others that my suspicion was confirmed. He had experimented with me by not using his voice.

If you don’t treat other people that way, don’t treat D/deaf people any different. Even if the D/deaf person does not say anything to you, it does not mean they won’t know. People are not as stupid as you think – D/deaf or no.

I wish you all well.

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