Seeing at the Speed of Sound
February 20, 2021 5:03 AM   Subscribe

Lipreading, which makes one sense do the work of another, is a skill daunting to describe. Rachel Kolb, deaf since birth, shares its mysteries. Stanford Magazine from 2013, via Autostraddle.
posted by ellieBOA (10 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating article. This is also the mistake we Americans often make with non-native speakers of English. We assume that English is digital: You either don't speak it at all or you speak it fluently. We have a hard time understanding that there are many gradation between those two. Our conversational partners could use a little consideration and help from us to keep the talk flowing.
posted by mono blanco at 7:33 AM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is fascinating and well written, thanks for posting it.

I've been partially deaf for many years and didn't realize the extent to which I was relying on cues from lipreading until pandemic masks came along and took those cues away. Lately my in-person interactions have been pretty minimal which is lucky because they've typically been ending with me saying ".... okay, thanks!" or something similarly vague and hopefully apposite.

This is so painfully familiar:
She repeats herself. This time I understand that it is a question. Well, most questions are easily answerable with "yes" or "no."

I decide fast, "Yes." Surely a positive response will make the girl happy.

Instead, she frowns, and I realize I have said the wrong thing. Panicking, I tell her, "No," then, "Um, I don't know."
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 8:24 AM on February 20, 2021 [7 favorites]

While I am not deaf, I have a distinct problem with filtering out ambient sounds. Looking back on it, I can remember several situations in my youth that led me to realizing that I could read lips. I was almost totally unaware just how much I relied on this until, as Tuasdt said above, masks almost completely removed that.

It's been a long year just dealing with the pandemic, but it's also been very difficult with this crutch removed. To be honest, the only saving grace about this particular issue has been that people haven't been wearing masks on Zoom, etc. If they had, the "normal" feeling of isolation from this pandemic would have been much more profound.
posted by Sphinx at 8:57 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had no idea that lipreaders understand only about 30% of what's said, although thinking about my own experiences I can see why. I once knew someone who insisted on trying to silently mouth things to me when one of us was on the phone, but they thought it would be helpful to wildly overenunciate, making it impossible to even guess what they were trying to say. It was strangely infuriating to watch their big lips flopping around when I might have been able to guess what they were saying if they had just whispered normally, so the whole time I was reading this I was wondering if it was common enough that she would mention it, and she did. And I never thought about all these other obstacles, like accents. When you factor all of this in, 30% seems amazing.
posted by HotToddy at 9:14 AM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I spent many hours with a speech therapist and a mirror. She'd touch my lips and my tongue with a swab and I think all that made me a better than average lip reader.

20 years ago a deaf artist came in to my store and asked what the music was. He had just been surgically altered and could hear for the first time ever. We didn't have any other customers so we got to talk for a while and he said he had never been able to lip read me so I told him about the years of speech therapy and all the missing nerves in my face and tongue and how I use archaic words that I know I can pronounce and that made sense to him.

I didn't think about that again until I was using binoculars and turned to someone who actually spoke the language and mimicked what I thought they said. He said no so I let him look and he was paying attention and agreed with me that they were going to leave that night.

I always train dogs with hand signals and words then drop the words. We still have the words if it is pitch dark but their night vision is pretty good.

When the kids were 3,5 & 7 I got a puppy and, well, there was this loud tornado time when I silently told all of them to get prone and stay that way. They wouldn't have heard me but they all understood.

There is a tree that was hit by lightning a bit down the hill from our house. It fell a year later in a way that makes it an inviting place to sit. The kids have some deep discussions sitting around that stump and have yet to ask why I often have relevant media pulled for them when they come in.

I should stop doing that. They're older and deserve some privacy.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:50 AM on February 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Diagnosed with a mild hearing loss in 2nd grade. Got tested every six months. Got progressively worse. Was sent to speech therapy and lip reading classes. Was a typical pre-teen boy more interested in sports that that darn class my mother dragged me to twice a week. I hated spending a half an hour making the "r" sound or the "s" sound. Put your tongue here. Close your lips like this. I guess it paid off. 90% of the people I know and know pretty well have no idea I have a hearing loss. Now that I am getting older, a lot of them are catching up with losing their hearing and they do not have many coping skills. One of the things that kills me is my blue tooth speaker for my tv. There is a slight delay, milliseconds probably, but the sound is off ever so slightly from the lips.

Fast forward about 45-50 years. I get a new girlfriend and covid hits. My gf does not believe I have a hearing loss I guess because I read lips. Then she starts to say things like, "I am talking to you" or "did you hear me". I explain that I tried to explain that I am hard of hearing and background noise and not talking to me rather than near me makes it hard for me to understand what you are saying. Also, sometimes it takes a a good 10 seconds for me to process what was said. So I remain silent as I am frantically trying to figure out that she said, "Good night" I have asked, no, really begged her to only talk to me when we are in the same room and to turn down the TV or turn off the blender or whatever is making that awful noise before talking to me. "If you can hear the tv, why can't you hear me?" "Because the TV is on and blocking the sound of your voice. Plus, you are talking into your laptop. Talk to me."

I did learn to use it to my advantage. As a teen, when my mom would ask me to take out the garbage or something, I would conveniently not hear her.

My kids have learned how to have an effective conversation with me. When I ask them what the key is so I can tell gf, they just shrug and say patience. "But, dad, remember that time I asked you a question on a Friday night and you said yes? You actually agreed to let me go to that rap concert. Bet you did not know that." Uh no. They learned to read the look on my face. They knew if I got it or not. TRey also call out to me when the microwave ends or the toaster over dings. I have not heard those sounds. "You mean they have a sound?" Yup.

Like the author, I learned to guess and to smile a lot. I was forced to take a foreign language in school. I took French in 6-12 grade and still placed into 101 when I got to Uni. I can read french, but to speak and hear it is a non starter.

I am about to get hearing aids. Tried one on. It was like when I got glasses at 27. Excuse the pun, but it was eye opening. You don't know what you are not seeing or what other people can see if you you do not know.

I think hearing is the same way. With a hearing loss rather than deafness, you might think you are hearing what everyone else is hearing, but then you get some sort of amplification and WOW.

I just took one of the tone tests and the repeat the sentence tests that the author described taking. I cannot fudge the sentence one, but I did learn that some audiologists hit a new sound every say 3 or 4 seconds so I would hear the first sound I heard then just raise my hand or click the button at regular intervals. Most of the time I fooled them.
posted by AugustWest at 11:07 AM on February 20, 2021 [8 favorites]

As a person with bad hearing, "If you can hear <x>, why can't you hear me?" is one of the most infuriating things anyone's ever said to me. There are so many reasons: voice pitch, volume, enunciation, background noise, many more. I've lost one friend who insisted that if I could hear another guy, I should be able to hear him. Believe me that I would if I could.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:50 PM on February 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Even when my hearing was superb I needed a mime costume. There were people who thought I could hear them when I was doing dishes. Then I realized it was because they never did dishes. I divorced one of them and got the other one a stool.

It is sad and interesting when people get visibly upset because you can't hear them. I don't suggest shutting the water off and asking if they've been silenced all their life. Their assumptions are already unraveling at that very instant you shut the water off and turn to face them.

It took me one day to break the kids about background noise. The adults that still do this confound me.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:20 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Mel Chua is many things, including "Hacker, writer, scholar, teacher, engineer, contagiously enthusiastic. DeafDisabled multimodal polyglot cyborg. She/her." She grew up oral-deaf, so she developed some exhausting lip reading skills.

Oral deaf audio MacGyver: identifying speakers
posted by Jesse the K at 2:22 PM on February 21, 2021

I really enjoyed this article, thank you for posting it.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:37 PM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

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