How to Read Lips
Reading lips is a special talent that takes patience and time to master. But everyone, even those with perfect hearing, already lip reads on occasion. While it is impossible to read lips completely since English has several identical looking sounds, a little bit of practice and awareness can help you pick up most of what people are saying without hearing a thing.
Understanding How to Lip Read
Know that you must focus equally on context and visual cues as the actual lips.Only 30-40% of sounds in the English language are noticeable by sight. Too many of our words and syllables are so similar that you can't actually just tell them by lip reading alone. Most lip-readers will tell you, at the end of the day, that lip-reading isn't actually reading. The words aren't so simple, and tics, mumbling, accents, and mouth covering all make straight "reading" impossible. Once you learn to make lipreading apartof your communication, not the only tool you have, you will be much more successful.
- At Better Hearing Australia's annual lip reading competition, most people score only 40-50%. The few who hit 90% and higher do so through context, context, and guess work.
Lipread sentences, not single words.Trying to pick up every single word is going to be hard, and you'll struggle mightily. Most lip-readers know that long words and sentences are easier to read than short ones because longer phrases allow you to fill in the blanks through context. By focusing on the whole sentence, you can comfortably miss a few words here and there and still understand what was actually said.
Check in to facial movements and expressions to understand tone and mood.The eyes and mouth are incredibly expressive -- often more so than your tone of voice. Don't just look at someone's lips, as the rest of their face offers important contextual clues to determine not only the sentence but how the sentence is said.
- Tugging at the lips (small grimaces or smiles) often indicate worry, fear, or anxiety.
- Raised eye brows also tend to indicate anxiety or stress.
- Furrowed brows and foreheads indicate displeasure or anger.
- Creases around the edges of the eyes indicate happiness and excitement.
- Cocking the head to the side usually indicates discomfort or even slight hostility. Looking down shows nervousness, shyness, or an unwillingness to communicate.
Study body-language and posturing to learn from non-verbal cues.You're trying to translate one sense (sound) into another (sight), and this is an inherently impossible task to perfect. The best lip readers use everything to their advantage, including body language, to gauge mood, tone, and themes of conversation. While imperfect, this list covers many of the basics:
- Closed off arms tend to indicate anger or aggression. Open arms indicate friendship, closeness, and honestly. Open and closed legs have similar connotations.
- The way a person's shoulders and hips point often indicate their priorities or who they are most comfortable with.
- Leaning towards you implies intimacy and connection. Leaning away generally indicates discomfort or confusion.
- Big, expansive posture implies confidence, strength, and dominance. Slouching shows a lack of confidence .
- There is a lot of nuance, subtlety, and interpretation involved in body language, and every situation is different. But, used with lip reading, you can learn a lot very quickly in most situations.
Know which syllables look similar to avoid common mistakes.There are 44 different sounds formed in English. Unfortunately, only a third of them are visually different.The following list of sounds can get tricky, as they have similar mouth shapes when formed, or are frequently confused. Even more confusing is that the brackets indicate the letters sound, not the letters themselves, :
- [b] & [p]
- [k] & [g],
- [t] & [d],
- [f], [v], & [th]
- [s] & [zzzz]
- [m] & [n]
Use the words you do know to figure out the ones you don't.You're basically given an incomplete map and asked to fill in the blanks, and you're not always going to get it right. But this is far more effective then harping on every word and sound. Many lip readers know they need to take a second to "re-construct" the sentence before responding, allowing them to speak more fluidly and skip over issues.
Ask people to speak a little bit slower if you're comfortable.Just be honest with your conversation partner and ask them to slow it down a bit. The point of a chat isn't to impress someone with your skills, but to actually talk to someone! Slower, better enunciated words will be much easier to read and pull context from.
Practicing Lip Reading
Watch TV and focus on how people's lips move when they talk.Start with the news, as you'll have clear speakers who are looking right at the camera every single time. If you have partial hearing, turn the volume up and listen along -- you'll be able to attach the "sounds" to the lip motions. If you are completely deaf, turn the closed captions on and use them to guide your lip reading.
Stare at yourself in the mirror, say the alphabet, talk out song lyrics, recite something.The whole time focusing on what your lips look like when they make different sounds/words. Slow down and try out tricky syllables or related sounds (like p, b, and m) to get used to the combination of word and visual. By saying the words out loud as you read, you help internalize the syllable for future lip reading.
Ask your friends to help you practice by talking clearly, slowly, and head on.Unfortunately, most conversations don't take place in a television studio. To improve your daily lipreading skills, start with your friends. Let them know you're working on lipreading, and that they can help by speaking clearly, slowly, and looking straight at you. As you get better, ask them to speed up to normal conversational pace.
Consider taking a lipreading class.Offered in most cities and towns, these are casual, supportive communities to practice in. Frequently you'll work together on difficult syllables and tricks, then break into conversation groups to get some practice in. Look online for lipreading classes to grow and develop your skills.
Be confident in your skills and push yourself to have conversations.The best way how to learn to lipread in public is to start lipreading in public. You may feel nervous, but just remember that very, very few people are going to get angry, upset, or otherwise negative when they find out you're lip reading. Communication is a two-way street -- and people will be willing and happy to help you learn and repeat sentences you've missed.
QuestionIs there any point in learning lip reading?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerMany Deaf people use lip reading to help communicate with people who do not speak sign language. People who are not Deaf may just find it interesting to learn.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I learn to lip read if I can hear?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTry putting on a movie you have seen multiple times and watch it on mute. Study the character's lips, and use subtitles if needed. You can also buy ear plugs or wear headphones with loud classical music to block out sound instead.Thanks!
QuestionHow long does it take to learn lip reading?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerDepends on the person. Some people can master it in just a few days, while others will need weeks or even months.Thanks!
QuestionIs lip reading effective if I'm an animator?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt may be helpful for assessing character speech animations, to make sure they look realistic. However, it's not a strictly necessary skill.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I learn lip reading in just two days?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerLip reading is a skill and cannot be properly or thoroughly learned in two days. You'll need time to practice.Thanks!
QuestionIs lip reading impossible?Alms100Community AnswerNo, but it can be very challenging for some people. Don’t give up, it can take lots of time.Thanks!
QuestionHow can you learn ASL fast and easy?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerWatch videos on YouTube, take classes, watch and mimic interpreters.Thanks!
Where can I find lip reading classes in the Kansas City area?
If you want to read lips, start by using a mirror to watch yourself say the alphabet or recite something, so you can see what your lips look like when you make different sounds and words. You can also watch news anchors on TV to try and attach sounds to lip motions, since you can see their mouths clearly as they look directly into the camera. When you’re ready to start lipreading, work on picking up key words rather than every word, which is difficult. Then, you can use context and visual cues to fill in gaps, and facial expressions and body language to pick up tone and mood.
- Try with friends and family. Step it up after some time by guessing what people in coffee shops or in the train are saying.
- It's going to be hard at first trying to figure out sentences since a lot of words look the same (ball, mall, bat, mat, etc) so you'll have to take clues from the rest of the sentence to figure these words out.
- When you watch TV be sure to watch live people, not cartoons. Cartoons don't have realistic lip movements, sometimes just up-and-down and not even forming words.
- When people yell, their mouths get wider and it becomes very difficult to see what they are saying.
- Watch TV shows or movies you've seen and are familiar with (most people seem to have a favorite they've watched over and over), but mute the volume. Watch the actors and see if you can follow the dialogue by watching their mouths/lips closely.
- Using songs from TV shows or videos is not a reliable technique for beginners to use to learn to lip read, because often words and syllables are exaggerated, elongated or abbreviated to fit the melody, mumbled, or simply accented or pronounced in an unusual way.
- Don’t give up if you find it difficult. This will work after so many failures, don't lose your heart just wait for it.
- This is an imperfect art -- know that it is incredibly difficult to understand every word lip reading. It is best used to supplement other methods of hearing and communication aid.
Sources and Citations
- Benguerel AP, Pichora-Fuller MK. 1982 Coarticulation effects in lipreading.J. Speech Hear Res. 1982 Dec;25(4):600-7.
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