After sign language lip reading is one of the most common ways for deaf people to communicate. The obvious problem with lip reading is that it is not a complete communication system in itself as it only allows the lip reader to understand and not to make conversation themselves. But if a person is good at lip reading then they will be able to follow conversations – of course, as long as they can see the people who are speaking clearly, and usually, as long as the people are aware of the lip reader so they can slow down – some people are good enough not to need this however. And just as some people make good lip readers, some people make good subjects of lip reading. People who speak very fast tend not to open their mouths very wide, thus obstructing the lip reader’s understanding, while slower speakers make more distinct shapes – helping the lip reader along.
Watching the Way Words are FormedLike all systems, lip reading has some disadvantages. For the most part, lip readers can see where their subject is forming the words – not only in the lips, but the face too. In fact, most of us do this on some level when talking face to face, we just do not realise it. But lip readers base their whole understanding of what has been said on these movements. Which is fine until a word or letter is used which is made from inside the mouth – and thus out of vision for the lip reader. So words with letters which look the same – notably p and b, can be confusing. It has been estimated that as many as 40 per cent of sounds in English cannot be told apart from others just by lip reading. This is a daunting figure and seems at first to render lip reading virtually useless But there are ways a round it. Much of the time the meaning will be clear from context but this is not always the case.
The Speaker’s FaceAs mentioned above, another disadvantage is that if a speaker’s face is obstructed, the lip reader will not be able to make anything out. This does not only extend to speakers who are turned away form the lip reader but also people who have moustaches and beards as this can obstruct the facial positioning.
Finally, in a group discussion, lip reading becomes very difficult because it is not easy to see the person who is about to speak next. Thus by the time the lip reader trains their eyes on them, they have already probably missed some words, maybe even more.
Lip reading is a skill which takes a long time to perfect but becomes invaluable once learnt. It is not only deaf people who will find it a good skill to have – anyone who works in a noisy environment should at least attempt to learn how to watch someone’s face for what they are saying. In this way, you avoid having to yell at the tops of your voices to each other, or, more dangerously, do not have to take off protective safety ear protectors.