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Lipreading

lips
Photo by Andrea Allen (Flickr)

With hearing loss comes the inability to hear well in noisy environments, asking people to repeat what they have just said, and unfortunate misunderstandings in conversations that may lead you to respond inappropriately during a conversation. All of these circumstances can be helped if you learn one skill: lipreading.

If you have trouble hearing, chances are decent that you have learned at least some lipreading on your own. If you have, great! You are on your way to developing a wonderfully useful skill. If you haven’t, that is OK, too. Lipreading, also known as speechreading, is something that can be learned through formal study or experience, but it is best to study deliberately if you are serious about developing this skill.

What to Expect

We have all seen James Bond or others in spy movies magically read lips word for word from a moderate to great distance. That’s pure Hollywood! The reality is that speechreading/lipreading is much more of a supplement to American Sign Language (ASL) or hearing aids than a standalone skill. It takes some other type of input to provide a context for understanding the motion of a person’s mouth and what they are saying. When used in conjunction with ASL or hearing aids, it can greatly increase the ability to communicate accurately and clearly. If someone tries to lipread with no other input, they are bound to be severely disappointed with the results.

The Basics

One of the foundations of being able to lipread is learning and recognizing the different shapes the mouth, tongue, and lips make as we pronounce words, known as articulatory phonetics. Once this is done, we can then begin to learn to see patterns that form different words. Each of these skills requires a new level of concentration and awareness of how we make a sound to communicate. (If it isn’t obvious by now, lipreading is language-specific, as each language has its own set of unique sounds.)

Practice, Practice, Practice!

As with anything else worth learning, it takes a massive amount of practice to become proficient in speechreading/lipreading. Practice in the mirror by saying words and watching your own lips. Practice when watching the TV by turning down the volume and turning off the captions. Practice with your friends and loved ones by watching their mouths as they speak to you and others. Take every opportunity to practice and you will be surprised at how quickly you make progress.

Further Reading

Recommended by Gallaudet University, Speechreading in Context: A Guide for Practice in Everyday Settings is a free resource for those looking to learn lipreading from the very community that uses it the most. Dr. Mark Ross, a former professor of audiology at the University of Connecticut, has also written extensively on what learning to lipread entails. It’s important to note, though, that there’s only so much you can learn about this skill from the written word. Also, keep in mind that a lot of resources out there on lipreading seem to be British, and while speechreading is more common in the U.K., regional language differences can make these sources less useful for Americans.

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