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1:43pm on Thursday, 15th September, 2005:

Watch my Lips


I can lip-read.

No, really, I can. When I was 4, I caught 13 colds in 12 months, with the result that I went deaf. Few people knew I had, though, because as I lost my hearing I gained the ability to read lips. My mother was suspicious, but no-one seemed to believe her; I didn't even know I was going deaf myself. Then one day, my mother's aunt visited with her husband. He was deaf himself, and immediately spotted the signs. He asked if anyone knew I was deaf, they ran a few informal tests (hiding radios and asking me to find them, that kind of thing), and enough evidence emerged for my mother to risk "wasting the doctor's time".

The doctor diagnosed that if they'd left it another 2 weeks, I'd have been deaf permanently. However, there was still time and they could fix it. Surgery on 5-year-old children isn't something to be taken lightly, but it was either that or permanent deafness. I had the operation, and it worked: my hearing was unaffected.

Well, that's not strictly true: physically it was unaffected, but I was deaf at a time when children typically learn to detect where sounds are coming from. As a result, I'm hopeless at it: if I close my eyes and someone claps, I can maybe get their quadrant (left, right, in front, behind) but not much beyond that. Indeed, I might not even get the quadrant. Ah, the excitement of trying to figure out if some ambulence siren I hear when driving is in front or behind...

Anyway, I can lip-read.

I'm not all that good at it any more, to be honest; maybe only 50% of what your average lip-reader can do. I'm just way out of practice. Nevertheless, that still probably puts me in the top 0.5% of the population.

Interestingly, lip-reading is, to me, just like reading. When I read, I sub-vocalise the words: in other words, I hear them in inner speech (which also happens when I think). The same happens when I lip-read: I don't try to figure out what people are saying, I just watch their lips and "hear" their words internally. I don't hear them all, though, because I'm not as good at it as I used to be. I can pick out quite a lot, though.

Also, I have to do it deliberately. If I'm watching TV and the sound goes off, I don't automatically lip-read: I have to start lip-reading. It's a conscious decision. OK, it only takes an instant, but it does mean I need to have a reason to lip-read or I won't.

3 or 4 years ago, I was explaining this to my daughters and they asked for a demonstration. I told my younger daughter to think of a sentence then move her lips as if she were saying it, only not to make any sound. This, she did. Yes...

The result was incredibly confusing for me. I got most of the words immediately, but I was "hearing" some of them very oddly. I asked her to repeat them, and got the same result. One of them, for example, sounded to me like "dith-eyed". What on earth was going on? I asked her to say the sentence in full, and it turned out that this particular mystery word was "decide". All the other problematic words had s in them, too. My younger daughter says her ses almost exactly how she says her ths — and I (nor anyone else) had ever noticed it until that day. Listening, you can't detect any difference in sound between her ses and anyone else's, but lip-reading her she lisps!

On the whole, I think I'd prefer to know where sounds come from.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).