The People Who Are Impossible for Lipreaders to Decipher

Rachel Kolb has been deaf since birth and in Stanford magazine, she writes about learning how to lipread and describes what it’s like to read the lips of people with accents or who over-enunciate:

Some people are all but impossible for me to lipread. People with thin lips; people who mumble; people who speak from the back of their throats; people with dead-fish, unexpressive faces; people who talk too fast; people who laugh a lot; tired people who slur their words; children with high, babyish voices; men with moustaches or beards; people with any sort of accent.

Accents are a visible tang on people’s lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning. Accented words pull against the gravity of my experience; like slime-glossed fish, they wriggle and leap out of my hands. Staring down at my fingers’ muddy residue, my only choice is to shrug and cast out my line again.

Some people, though not inherently difficult to understand, make themselves that way. By viewing lipreading as a mysterious and complicated thing, they make the process harder. They over-enunciate, which distorts the lips like a funhouse mirror. Lips are naturally beautiful, especially when words float from them without thought; they ought never be contorted in this way. There are other signs, too: nervous gestures and exaggerated expressions, improvised sign language, a tic-like degree of smiling and nodding.

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Photo: Bill Strain