PJ Gribbin: Lip-Reading. A Subtle and Delicate Skill

Posted on November 6, 2012



It’s now getting on for thirty years since I was head-butted by a border collie; she had a hard forehead – I don’t think that she even noticed the bump – but it cost me a front tooth, snapped clean off halfway down. Such is life. Since that time, after a painful experience at the dentist’s (for both me and my wallet) I have enjoyed life with half of my stunning smile being delivered via a crown on the broken tooth. But all good things must end, and last August the crown fell out and the remains of said tooth were declared no longer fit for purpose and extracted.

The next step in the process of restoration for my natural toothy grin is for me to wear a false tooth on a plate for a couple of months while my gum settles down after the extraction – this will then be replaced by a bridge which (I am assured) will be nearly as effective as the now-departed crown.

It’s quite a strange thing to wear a large chunk of plastic in your mouth – your tongue keeps on smacking against it when you try to speak and you sound funny (funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha) – or, at least, that’s how it seems to you. “Don’t worry about that,” said my dentist, “other people will not notice at all – it just feels and sounds odd to you.”

Hmm. I suspect that my dentist doesn’t share his life with deafies.

“Pardon?” “What have you done to your mouth?” “Have you hurt yourself?” “Can you spell that please, your mouth’s all wrong.” And more. Even worse (for them), trying to eat with a temporary (and therefore not brilliantly-fitting) plate is not fun, so I’ve been removing it when I eat – changing the shape of my mouth in another, different, way. Mealtime conversation too has therefore changed in character; I can see the much more intense focus on my lips as I speak, the slight frown of concentration, the puzzled, “Why is Andy a nutter? Oh no, he said, ‘Hand me the butter’.” moments.

All of which has finally led me to eventually really realise just how bloody difficult it is to lip-read. While I knew that everybody’s mouth-shape and features were a bit different and that this must affect the task of reading their lips to some degree, I thought (and behaved as if) feature-differences were like the deaf equivalent of accents or voice-tones for the hearing – I’d never realised just how hard it is to carry on a lip-reading conversation with a stranger. Suddenly I fully understand why my (lip-reading and) signing friends always want a signing interpreter with them when they’re in formal, ‘interview’ situations, and why my non-signing friends want someone with them that they know really well to re-speak what the other parties are saying. It’s not just to save them a bit of effort – it’s actually vital if they’re going to be able to participate fully in the interaction. Social workers, please note.

I also now have a better understanding of the challenges presented by the, ‘dinner party’ situation where conversations go on simultaneously and we hearies will often switch between conversations without offering any visual clues, sharing one topic with the person on our left, another with the person on our right and at the same time cracking a joke with the person opposite! So much of successful lip-reading must be about knowing the context or topic – ‘butter’ if the conversation’s about food, ‘putter’ if it’s about golf. (Today somebody who knows me well misread, “Roses with thorns” as, “Rodents with thoughts” – clearly I had failed to establish the context of the conversation before diving into the meat of what I was saying!)

So … lessons learned …

  • Make sure that we both know what we’re talking about before trying to share too much detail.
  • Don’t jump from subject to subject without warning. When in mixed company, if necessary, get the hearies to wait until my current, ‘mini conversation’ with the deafies reaches a suitable break-off point … and make sure that my body-language indicates that I’ve broken off.
  • ‘Rephrase’ isn’t just a word; for lip-readers it’s a way of life.
  • Be ready to fingerspell the odd word. (I’ll never be any kind of fluent signer but anybody who cares can pick up finger spelling in a couple of hours and it makes a huge difference when the odd word just isn’t getting through.)
  • Don’t expect deaf strangers to be able to read me as well as my deaf friends – any more than I can, ‘read’ a Geordie stranger but can happily converse with familiar Geordie friends.

and finally …

  • Keep on laughing at the misunderstandings – you never know where they might take you … in seconds a horticultural conversation can be transformed into a philosophical discussion concerning the contemplations of a rat.

Paul Gribbin is a semi-retired mainframe computer programmer who lives in the East Midlands. When he’s not computing he enjoys short walks – nothing over five miles please – accompanied by various dogs and grown-up children; these always seem to end up at tea-shops and pubs. He also likes reading (mostly science fiction) and during his brief acting career he once appeared as 4th Pleb in a school production of Julius Caesar.

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