How effective is lip-reading for the deaf?

I have often heard of deaf people learning to “read lips” to determine what people are saying, but in my first year of linguistics studies here at college, I realize that there are many features of speech which would not be visibly detectable. For example, glottal consonants, voicing oppositions and nasal vowels all include features that can’t be seen with the naked eye. For example, in theory a deaf person would not be able to tell the difference between the words “at”, “add”, “hat” and “had”. Are deaf people’s abilities to understand the spoken word significantly diminished because of this?

For some deaf folks, lip reading is an effective means of understanding others. For some, it is not.

First of all, not everyone has equal ability to learn lip-reading. Take two deaf people with the same degree of hearing impairment, give them the exact same training, and one may be able to read lips well enough to follow a conversation and the other may not. Natural talent does have an effect.

I think, but I’m not sure, that being able to hear prior to going deaf may help a person understand lip reading better than someone else who has been deaf from birth. However, I’ve known at least one person who had been totally deaf from 6 months who was quite a skillful lip reader and able to engage in understandable conversation with the hearing on a daily basis.

I used to work with a woman who was deaf who not only could lip-read English, she was learning to lip read Italian so she could better understand her in-laws.

Other folks just never learn the trick of it.

But yes, some of the vocal features you mention are troublesome. My deaf boss used to use context to help understand what was being said, and it could help to express the same thought more than once, in different ways. Body language, gesture, and facial expressions also come into play. Moustaches and beards are significant obstacles to lip reading because they hide movements. And when one of the gals on our floor had a bought of Bell’s Palsy – well, the deaf folks just couldn’t lipread her until it went away.

But even the two best lip readers I’ve known have used sign interpretors - it’s almost impossible to follow conversations with more than one speaker, and anyone with an unusual accent (either foreign or regional) or speech impediment will not be understandable. My deaf boss used interpreters for job interviews in part to avoid accent problems (once she spent some time with someone with an accent she would learn to lip read them inteligibly - hey, this is the gal who was learning to speak and understand spoken Italian despite her deafness), but also because lip reading used up a lot of concentration and she didn’t always catch everything. It’s important understand the answers you get in a job interview. The set up was similar to what you see on the late night talk shows when they have a guest - the Signer sits behind or a little to one side of the hearing person so they don’t distract the interviewee, but are easily visible to the deaf person. This woman also used interpreters when engaged in public speaking (which she did frequently). She was able to speak quite clearly and modulate her volume, but for taking questions from the audience the interpreters were vital - between lighting conditions and distance, not to mention problems with accents, mumbling, facial hair, etc. lip reading in an auditorium was just not effective. So, even for a highly skilled and accomplished lip reader it’s just one of many tools and will not serve in all circumstances.

Is there a legitimate reason football coaches cover their mouths when discussing/sending in their next plays during a game? Watch football this Sunday and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The offensive/defensive coordinators (and maybe the coach) will hold something in front of their mouth as they relay a play to whoever. Watching it you can see it is very intentional and not just a chance occurrence now and again…they do it constantly. I always figured they did it to avoid having someone on the other team who can read lips be able to gather what the next play will be. Is that correct or not?

I think at best lip reading is only 30% accurate. That doesn’t mean the person gets 30% of the information, that means they get 70% inaccurate information. Like at an auction, I thought I bought something for $15, but turned out to be $50 :slight_smile:

I suppose some do better, but some people I met who lip read a lot got information from reading lips but this information I found out later was inaccurate.

That’s pretty interesting. Maybe they do it to “filter” out all the noise, like how we cup our mouths sometimes when we need to talk in a loud place?

Maybe but I don’t think so. Usually they just hold up a piece of paper (playlist or some game info they always have in hand) in front of their face. They don’t seem to use it to block noise but maybe they do…they only seem to do it when its time to send the play in and generally seem to just walk and talk at other times. Perhaps wind blows in the mic and this blocks the wind to be sure the player gets the message. You’d think the fancy Motorola headset they wear would be state-of-the-art and have accomodation for wind not affecting the pickup but who knows? Hoping someone here does.

Yeah, I think you may be right. How freaky would that be though, if teams were to start hiring lip-readers!

They are definitely doing it to ensure that the opposition does not read lips. I played in college and this was an understood practice.

It’s sick to think that there would be someone assigned with a pair of binoculars to guess plays, but I don’t think they would do it unless some team had been burned in the past.

True, but they get pretty good at guessing which word is the correct one based on the context of the conversation. Just like anyone in a conversation, even hearing people, does.

Look at an actual transcript of a conversation sometimes and you will see all kinds of misstatements, pauses, hesitations, hemming & hawing, etc. – far different from the clear & concise dialogues in plays, for example. Yet people understand each other because they know the context of what they are talking about. Which is also why computer voice recognition often produces such amusing transcripts.

Definitely. It’s very easy to distinguish the words PASS or RUN in a play call, and many plays do use these words (since lineman don’t often care if it’s a post/fly/out/slant, they just want to know if they’re blocking for a pass or a run, and if it’s a run tell them what hole to open up). So if a coach says “right I right 15 spot pass” an opposing player may see the word “pass” and adjust accordingly.

I’ve seen coaches use 3 different people to send signals into the QB to prevent the reading of signs, and IIRC the NFL had an incident where one team was evesdropping on that radio conversation between the coach and QB a few years back.


Two sentences you can always read on lips:

  1. Can you read lips
  2. I love you.

BTW, in general hearing people make better lip readers because they can learn it by hearing the words as they are spoken.

My former roommate became deaf at the age of 3 due to meningitis. She did have around 10% hearing in one ear, and used a hearing aid to “enhance” that. She was excellent at reading lips, and graduated college in 4 years with honors, and is now in graduate school, working on a Ph.D in psychology. I do think that the fact she had some hearing helped her, but even when she had her hearing aid out, she was able to communicate with me and others.

Cassie Beth, how did your roommate read lips in class? Because when the teacher is writing on the chalkboard, their back is turned.

My mother lost her hearing quite rapidly in her late 30s. Although an operation (stapes replacement) restored much of it, for about 2-3 years she was quite deaf in the normal voice frequency range.

In a very short time she got very good at reading lips. She relied a lot on the context of what was being said to figure out indistinct lip movements. That said, very good was nowhere near perfect and we kids learned very quickly to stand directly in front of her and speak very slowly.