(Originally published in the 2016 Summer issue of ALDA; full unedited version below)
The ability to communicate is a fundamental human need. While we have many wonderful devices at our disposal, it's often easy to overlook the best of them: our own brain. If we can see the person speaking to us, we have the option of reading their lips. Lipreading.org is dedicated to helping late-deafened people learn how to do just that.
With some training, our brains can learn to substitute one sense for the other. Many people have tried, and mastered this skill to a degree, and late-deafened people especially benefit from the combination of visual and audio stimuli. Becoming proficient takes time and practice. Readers who stick with it have learned to be patient with themselves and with the friends and family they’re trying to read.
Only about a third of the sounds we make are formed in the front of the mouth and easily seen. However, by combining this with the context of the speech, it is still sufficient for full understanding. This is why the skill is sometimes termed speech reading: Effective lip readers learn how to integrate facial expressions, residual hearing, and subtle visual cues with the context of the speech to understand what’s being said.
One of the greatest misconceptions for novice lip readers and speakers is that speech reading is akin to reading books, that every movement – visible or not – can be translated under any circumstance. Perhaps this is because some lip readers are so good at it. If lip reading is combined with the use of a hearing aid, comprehension often doubles and in many cases crosses the 80-percent threshold into the low 90s.
Sometimes the path to achieving that 80 or 90 percent may seem long and exhausting. When you first learned to read books, it required focused attention and fine-tuned visual skills that took time to develop. Eyes grew tired, and frustration broke through. Lip reading is similar in that it, too, requires concentration, acquired endurance, and deliberate practice. Ultimately, however, it works like a muscle: the more you stretch your ability, the sharper and stronger understanding becomes.
The best strategy is to take regular breaks, and avoid becoming overwhelmed, overtired or overstimulated. Your brain needs time to organize what you’ve learned, so acknowledge when your concentration falters; take breaks, and try again when you’re ready.
What’s most important to realize, however, is that communication is a shared experience – and a shared responsibility. Every speaker is different. An expressive friend in a calm, well-lit room will be easier to read than someone who is moving or distracted in a noisy setting. Men’s beards or mustaches, regional accents and hand gestures can also make it challenging.
That’s why having an accepting, low-stress place to practice is so important. This is the idea behind our site, Lipreading.org: being able to practice over and over again with a diverse group of speakers until you master all aspects of the skill. The speakers never get bored or frustrated, and you can have as many tries as you need.
Getting started with learning how to do it might seem difficult. In our testing with over a hundred participants, we have discovered that the ability to understand speech based on lip reading alone fundamentally boils down to whether one has been paying attention to the speaker’s face while communicating throughout their lives (latent lip reading ability), familiarity with the speaker’s accent, and good visual perception.
It's also very useful to practice with the specific person you communicate with the most personally. Playing some simple, fun games with limited vocabulary options by mouthing the words can be an eye opening exercise for friends, and family. Here are a few games you can try at home:
Losing your hearing can leave you feeling isolated, but Lipreading.org and its speech reading learning strategies shows that you are not alone. Learn the shapes mouths make with lips, tongue and teeth. Then, combine those skills with visual cues, context and practice. Reach out through our website to play lip reading games with others in the hard-of-hearing community. Most importantly, continue to learn and practice at your own pace with our instructors who’ve successfully taught many others the one skill that you can count on – even when all else fails – lip reading.