How good is lip reading? Can people really read lips without any sound and understand what is being said? Better Hearing Australia runs an annual lip reading competition and members from the branches test their skills. The organisation produces a series of short videos where someone is speaking. The speaker will not necessarily be a good speaker and have clear speech. After all in the real world, no two people speak in the same way, many have accents and don’t move their lips and don’t face you when they talk to you. So it is a test mirroring real life as much as it can.
Each year the tests may be different, but they go something like this. There will be a test about how we lip read every day things. The speaker will face the camera the first time he speaks and then be side on to the camera and say it again. So members get a double chance to read the lips, once from the front and once from the side.
Usually these are short sentences about everyday things. ‘What is the time?’ ‘Have you seen my dog?’ ‘My car is a Toyota and is blue’.’ My phone number is 02 2567 8953’. ‘I will meet you in the park at 3:30 on Monday afternoon.’ There is no prior knowledge of what is being talked about and it really does test the lip reader’s skill.
The test moves on and more complex sentences are spoken. The test paper includes many of the words from the sentences but will miss out on some of the words or phrases, so the lip reader has to concentrate and lip read the whole lot in order to pick up the missing bits. ‘Today we were at the ‘-------‘ at ‘--------‘. We saw____________________________________’
Then the final test is the crucial one. A short themed video is produced. The members will know the subject – for instance it might be going out for dinner or talking a walking in a memorial park. A small brochure is produced to familiarise the members with the content of the video. Then the speaker, who may be different to the speakers in some of the other tests, will talk about the subject. Each sentence is usually quite long and will take quite a bit to transcribe it. The sentence is shown twice to help lip readers pick up something where they might have blinked. ‘Tonight I am going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with friends, whom I haven’t seen for 10 years.’ ‘I haven’t decided what dress I will wear and I don’t think I want to wear high heels because they make my feet sore.’
The test takes place over about an hour. At the end the members hand in their papers and which are sent to a central location for grading. The majority of people, even if they have learned lip reading struggle with the test and score somewhere between 40 and & 50%. However, there are a few skilled people who will score as much as 96%.
What these tests tell us is that lip reading is a difficult skill. Rarely will you get everything through lip reading. It is important to also watch the body language, the eyes and listen for the emotion. Where possible attending lip reading classes will definitely improve your skills.