Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Week of Waiting - and Lipreading

Well, time just keeps sailing on by. Tomorrow is the two-week marker, something that's hard to believe. The glue and stitches over my incision peeled off a few days ago, leaving a thin, pink line of skin about an inch and a half long. As far as scars go, it's tiny, almost nonexistent. The first time I ran my fingers over it, I was left thinking, That's it? Medicine is a remarkable thing.

By this point, I'm recovered and my life has returned to normal - whatever that is. (The CI will shake this up soon enough; it's in there biding its time. I am so impatient, so excited for the turn-on. Every day overwhelms me with a feeling of waiting.)

Now that my post-op days are behind me, the major challenge (besides patience) has been returning to the hearing world. I started my summer internship this week, in an office where my bosses and coworkers assume that I will be proficient at communicating. It's been hard, navigating the corporate world with only one ear, and not even a good one at that. I find myself praying that, in less than a week, the CI will leap to my aid. If it doesn't make me crazy first. Were it not for lipreading, I don't know what I would do. Though this is an imperfect solution at best. Although my hearing friends often express incredulity over how well I lipread, and how easy I make it look, I don't think very many of them realize just how hard it can be.

If the weeks before the CI were The Weeks of Anxiety, and if last week was The Week of Recovery, then this week is The Week of Waiting - and Lipreading. In its honor, I've decided to post a short exercise I wrote for a creative nonfiction class this past year, which later informed a longer essay on the subject. I'll call it, simply, "Lipreading."

* * *
Action potential

The mechanism by which neurons fire electrical signals, and also the way information gets from photoreceptors in the eye to the visual cortex in the brain’s occipital lobe. Action potentials are firing all the time, all across my body, but I think they must fire at unusual frequency coming from my eyes. Maximum speed of an action potential, I’ve read, is about 120 meters per second. I don’t think this is fast enough.


I’ve always wondered what it would be like to read Braille. Instead of taking in virtually all of my communicative information through my eyes, how would it feel to absorb it through touch? I don’t think enough people realize the scope of alternative modes of communication.

And a side note: over the course of my life, several people have asked me, “Oh, you’re deaf? Do you read Braille?”

Cocktail party effect

The cocktail party effect, which was first described by Colin Cherry in 1953, is what allows hearing people to talk in noisy places. It is the ability to focus one’s auditory attention on a single speaker or noise from an excessive amount of background and environmental sounds. Since assistive hearing devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, only magnify environmental sounds – all of them – people with hearing losses do not have this selective listening skill. I really wish this were not true.


I hate driving with a passenger. Here’s why: because I can’t simultaneously watch the road and watch that person talk. Also, when I am the passenger, I prefer to sit in the front seat so I can see everyone in the car.


Also known as over-enunciation. What I like to call it when people, once I ask them to please slow down so that I can understand them, immediately say, “Oookaayy, eeeezz thiiiss ah-nyy beeh-tehrrr?” No. Just talk normally.

Foreign accents

People from other countries, or even other parts of the United States, don’t just sound different – they move their mouths differently. Sound is mechanically conduced, after all. My brain does a headstand whenever I meet someone from, say, Singapore.


Really the basis of all lipreading. Catch what you can – oh, they’re talking about pizza – and fill in the blanks like a puzzle. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re not.

Hearing people

Hearing people protest that they don’t know how to lipread. They ask how I learned, as if it’s a skill I’ve honed for the talent show. Because I have to, I want to say. You could do it, too, if it were your only choice.

I don’t know

My cop-out response when I have to ask someone to repeat a question more than three times.


I’m terrible at getting jokes. Not because I’m slow, but because the joke-teller often starts to laugh, talk fast, or change his/her voice for dramatic effect, and I miss the punch line.

Kolb family

Sitting down with family members is like settling into a familiar couch. Other people might recognize their parents by voice; I recognize them by how their faces move. I know those faces, I know the shapes their lips make. We talk. I smile and let the words flow over me.


Good lighting is essential. Glaring indoor fluorescents – bright enough, but eventually hurt my eyes. Romantic dinner restaurants with low light but high ambiance – the food may be good, but the conversation isn’t always. Spotlights or lamps – helpful, but often shroud the far side of a person’s face in shadow. Sitting and watching a friend talk when the sun is at her back and in my eyes – can we switch places, please? Soft or muted outdoor light – perfect.

McGurk effect

The McGurk effect, which was first described in a paper by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976, demonstrates that normal speech perception is multimodal and far more complex than sight or sound alone. In McGurk and MacDonald’s classic experiment, participants watched a video of human lips repeatedly pronouncing the sound “g” (the phoneme /ga/) at the same time they heard the sound “b” (the phoneme /ba/). Surprisingly, they reported not hearing either /ga/ or /ba/, but the intermediate sound “d” (the phoneme /da/). I consider this evidence that hearing people do lipread, even if they do not realize it.


When I’m at the doctor’s office, the nurse escorts me back to the examination room, then bends over her paperwork and tries to ask me questions and fill it out at the same time. And what’s more, she'll sometimes wear a paper mask that covers her mouth. “I’m sorry,” I say, “could you take that off and look at me?”

Open set

Lipreading is easy enough when you have a closed set, or predetermined category, that you know the conversation will be about. Oh, we’re talking about food. Got it. But when the doors of the set suddenly fly open, when the box is gone and the vast sky glares before your eyes, full of possibilities, you start to feel overwhelmed. You start to second-guess yourself, for really the other person could be talking about anything. The nature of particulate matter, the child that keeps wetting the bed, the country singer who was just on the radio. It’s an open set. And those possibilities provide the most frightening challenge of all.


It’s easy to imagine that I just see the words like someone would read them on a page. But I don’t. My brain needs to piece the array of minute facial motions together, to guess what that word or sentence could have been, and where the person is going next. When I’ve been lipreading for a while, the batteries on my internal processor start to wear down. I lose my edge. And then it’s just a blur.

Quick talkers

Breathe, for my sake and yours. A side note: almost all people I’ve met from Texas talk fast.


I love reading, as in reading books, because the words are clear and crisply printed on the page. I can spell them out, read them backwards, read them again and again. There are never any doubts regarding what they say.


It is almost impossible to lipread a person sideways, when he or she is looking at someone else. Other impossibles: lipreading in the dark or dim light, lipreading while people are laughing, lipreading people who mumble or put their hands in front of their mouth, lipreading people with facial hair, lipreading when my eyes are tired.

Thirty percent

A frequently quoted statistic, of which I do not know the original source, says that even the most skilled lipreaders, across a range of people and situations, only understand thirty percent of what is being said. From my experience, I believe this to be accurate.


A friend from my freshman dorm once told me I ought to be a spy. “Why?” I asked him. He said, “Because you could look through binoculars and lipread and understand everything anyone is saying!”

Voiced versus voiceless

Truly the bane of every lipreader’s existence. So many pairs of consonants are formed in the same place in the mouth, with the same movements – except that one is voiced and one is not. Hence, they look exactly the same. Think “b” and “p,” “t” and “d.” This is where guesswork becomes my closest friend.

When two becomes three, and three becomes four

Having a conversation one-on-one? Just fine. A second person comes in, making us three – a bit harder, more like watching a ball volley across a net, but still manageable. A third person arrives, and a fourth, or even a fifth? Too much. In this case, the speed of sound does exceed the speed of light.

X factor

The X factor in understanding people is that their minds are unpredictable. They’re likely to go from a closed set to an open one, likely to make digressions or change the subject, likely to name places or things I’ve never heard of before (and thus cannot fill in the blanks for). The most unprecedented cognitive leaps are what make conversation interesting, but they are what also make it difficult. If I could follow people like I can trace a line on a sheet of paper, perhaps I could form a coherent image for myself.

Young children

Young children don’t talk like real people. Hence, I can’t understand them like real people. I just smile, initiate a game of tag or tickle, or tell them to go play with someone else.


At the end of the day, if only I could zip people’s mouths shut.


  1. (Instead of going to sleep, I'm bingeing on Honey Bunches of Oats and reading your blog...) At risk of being redundant, I agree with almost all of what you're saying from personal experience. Not of lipreading but of understanding Spanish =D. I had to try really really hard to pick up the thread of group conversations, if I even succeeded. Teens are bad enough with their slang but toddlers = IMPOSSIBLE. I think everyone who has to learn a second language probably feels a little like this too. (Interesting that you learned Latin, which not many people speak!) But it's perhaps harder for us to respond since we have to translate our thoughts. However, we can much more easily go back to our 'native language...'

    I didn't know that lipreading was only 30%! I thought you said around 50-60%. But I totally know about asking people to repeat themselves tons of times. Sometimes I nod and smile and they look at me funny because that's not one of the answer choices ("Where are you going?" "...yeah..."). Never thought about how hard it is to understand the jokes because of laughing, though. Its hard enough to understand people who start laughing before the punchline with two working ears.

    I've been asked if deaf people can read Braille too, ironically. People used to come up to my left ear and scream "CAN YOU HEAR THIS?" Ah, Americans. But I can't recognize countries in mid-Europe or Africa, nor some American Presidents, so I guess we all have our stupid moments.

    I have a question for you, actually. Supposedly you read fingerspelling by looking at the shape of the word, but I always picked certain letters out too. What's the common unit of lipreading; syllables? Do you normally miss whole words or just parts of words? I kind of imagine the different vowel combinations are fairly recognizable, but then you have so many gaps that it's basically hangman. And just trying to look at my lips in the mirror as I talk, it seems impossible to tell the difference.

    Great respect for your skills. And your persistence.

  2. and it may seem I'm a little creepy stalker for posting on your blog posts like the day they come out...but Safari shows me all my blog updates and I really don't want to read any more papers on tuna. =D Plus it's always wonderful reading your blogs. If everyone blogged maybe I'd actually stay in touch with them better.

    ok maybe I am a little creepy-stalkerish.

  3. Ha, you're not a stalker! I love your comments actually.

    Your Spanish crossover in Chile is so cool, so many parallels. YES I know how it feels to answer "yeah" to a completely inappropriate question. It's terrible however often it happens!

    And about the 30 percent - it's an average across a range of situations. Some people I understand almost perfectly, 80-95%. Others I don't understand at all. Group situations I get around 10-20%. So it depends on lots of different things, probably not the best idea to pin down a set number.

    Hmm, common unit of lipreading - good question! I can only speak from my personal experience, but I think I do get the overall shape of the word, kinda like fingerspelling in that way. If the meaning doesn't "click" instantly, then I mentally backtrack and resort to basic attributes like syllables (and letters, as well as the all-important sentence context) to try to figure out what the word was. I should send you the longer essay I wrote about lipreading this quarter... I think you'd like it. :)

  4. So, may I, as a life-long hearing person and someone who has studied this both in college and through personal observation, let you know that hearing people DO lipread. They simply don't know it. There is a reason that most cultures encourage eye contact while communicating -- because there are cues we gain that enhance accuracy in giving and receiving communication. Growing up with a sibling who had a significant hearing loss, I can speak to the fact that I watched cartoons and other television shows with him while the sound was turned off. At the age of 50, I am a fair lipreader (for a hearing person). I'll bet that Leigh and your parents are better than average lipreaders for hearing people, all because of some of their experiences while you were growing up.

    P.S., you probably already know that you should add to the list of "I can't lipread these people": cartoon characters (they don't move their mouths correctly AT ALL)