I recently finished teaching a lip reading class in the Kansas City area. One of the questions I asked attendees was, “When it comes to lip reading, what is the most visible speech sound?”
Several hands were raised.
“The /M/ sound,” said a gentleman who lost some hearing in the military.
“I think it’s the /B/ sound,” said a woman who learned English as a second language.
“The /A/ sound,” was the answer given by yet another attendee. “Because the jaw drops when you say it.”
I nodded. Yes, all of these sounds are apparent on the face. So are the sounds for /P/, /F/, /V/, the long /O/, and /Wh/. Especially the /Wh/ sound. Think about all the “Wh” questions we ask in our everyday conversations.
Several attendees agreed.
What We Can’t See
“But there are lots of sounds I can’t see,” was one attendee’s reply. “I can’t see the /S/ sound.”
“/N/ is a hard one,” said another person.
And the sounds for /H/, /I/, /J/, /K/, /R/, /T/, /X/, and /Z/. That is 8 out of 26 letters in the English alphabet.
My conclusion for all of these answers rested on this reality: Roughly 30 to 40 percent of spoken English sounds are quite visible on the face.
That means the remaining 60 to 70 percent of sounds are not that easy to see on the speaker’s lips. Think of just these four common English words: “I”, “can”, “see”, and “hear”.
“Then how can we lip read every word if we can’t see all the sounds?” asked a curious woman in her 60s.
My answer: “We can’t.” The audience became quiet.
The Context of Speech
“But,” I said, “many words we say are quite visible. ‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘which’, and ‘why’, for starters. And the words ‘a’, ‘oh’, and ‘the’, which we say all the time. Those other sounds that we can’t see because they’re behind the lips, in the throat—well, that is when you pay attention to the context.”
The subject of the conversation. The topic of the sentence. The meaning of speech.
“In other words,” I said, “we have to really pay attention to the speaker.”
We have to work hard to listen which, hearing loss or not, isn’t always easy.