Why Is Reading Lips So Hard?

Lipreading Class Photo

Read my lips: Lipreading is tough.

A while back, a producer with the Wanda Sykes Show emailed me, asking for help in understanding a news video clip. The idea sounded enticing: Come to California and watch a video blurb that had the speaker’s moving lips but no audio feed.

The truth is, many words look the same on a speaker’s face. Without some idea of the context of speech, I might confuse the sounds of /f/ and /v/ or /p/ and /m/ because they look similar on the lips. Face or vase? Pan or man? Patter or matter? It was tempting to bluff my way through deciphering a silent video clip just to take a trip to the West Coast, but I didn’t.

This month, I am teaching a lipreading class at a local library. A news reporter covered one of the classes. On the first session, I asked attendees: “Is it possible to understand 100 percent of speech by reading the speaker’s lips?” The simple answer I gave was no. The news reporter quoted this example in her article: “Just try watching TV with the sound off, and you’ll get the idea.”

During class, we discuss sounds that are highly visible on the face. They are what I call the “lip biters” (/f/ and /v/) and the “lip pressers (/p/, /b/, and /m/). I say the words slowly and with clear enunciation. I slightly overemphasize the top teeth biting the lower lip when speaking the /f/ in “face” and press the lips together with gusto when saying the /m/ sounds in “mom”. Still, without some ability to hear the voice, one would think I was talking about a speaker’s “vase”, not “face”.

Can we understand some speech by vision alone? Yes. Other visible speech includes what I call “lip pucker” sounds (/o/, /w/, /wh/), “jaw droppers” (/a/ and /u/), “teeth clenchers” (/sh/ and /ch/), and “tongue” sounds (/l/ and /th/). Excuse the silly names, but they adequately describe what is seen on the face when these sounds are made.

I end each night’s class session with a homework assignment. It involves going home and saying a list of words while standing in front of a mirror. “Say the words out loud and with clear enunciation. Don’t mouth them silently,” I advise.

The reality is, reading lips is as much about what we see as what we hear.

 

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