Lipreading, also known as Speech-reading, is often portrayed as a party game or trick. We see it shown on TV being used by someone trying to read lips of someone on a videotape where there is no audio on a crime show for example. Many of us have probably seen the funny lipreading videos of professional athletes or politicians on Facebook as well where they record the wrong audio over the video, but it looks like that is what the person is actually saying.
As we lose our hearing we often start to lipread to help us hear.
We may not even be aware of it, but we notice that if people are looking at us when they talk, we can hear them better. This occurs for 2 reasons, first, when the speaker is facing you the sound is traveling directly at you, making it easier to hear. Secondly, if the person is looking at you, you can see their facial expressions and their lips which can help us to understand what they are saying.
However, lipreading is not easy. Many sounds and words look alike when you only get to see them (no sound). Visemes are groups of sounds that look alike. These are mostly based on place of articulation or what part of the mouth is being used to produce the sounds. For example, the M, B, and P are all made the same way, by bringing the lips together. So visually, they will all look alike. What differentiates them is that the B is a voiced version (vocal folds are vibrating) of the P, and the M is the B with the addition of nasal air flow and no stoppage of air movement. There are several viseme categories in English.
Homophones are words that look alike. “Olive Juice” and “I Love You” look the same on the lips. This is where it can be easy to confuse what someone is saying and where a lot of these funny lipreading videos come from. When we communicate, we use topic cues, or situational cues to help us decide what is being said. For example, in a restaurant, the first time the server comes to your table they typically want your drink order. Even if we do not hear everything that is said, we use our knowledge of that situation to “fill-in-the-blanks” and determine what was said. Lipreading can aid us in understanding what is being said if we have difficulty hearing.
The existence of visemes and homophones can make lipreading a more difficult task. Some people are natural lipreaders, and others need a little instruction. There are actually classes you can take, computer programs you can purchase, and even board games that you can play that can help you learn to lipread. If you feel like you may be lipreading, and wonder if you are having any difficulty with your hearing, call our office and schedule a hearing test.