Lip-reading ability is often exaggerated in movies, TV and elsewhere.  While it can be a valuable skill for the hard of hearing and deaf, lip-reading can never replace normal hearing, or even come close.


Lip-Reading: Facts/Fantasy


February 13, 2020.


Movies and TV shows have depicted deaf people who read the lips of others who are 50 or 200 feet away. That’s impossible. That’s la ittle like claiming your 1986 Nissan can go 250 MPH on the flats in West Fullerton. 


It’s also impossible to lip-read everything another person says. The best lip-readers get about 30% of a conversation, maybe more once in a while. That’s my own estimate. 


Lip-reading is valuable when a hard of hearing or deaf person can use it to understand enough words someone says to guess correctly at the whole sentence. For example, let’s say someone says:  


“Let’s drive down to Laguna Beach and have lunch.” 


If a lip-reader can “read” the words “Laguna” and “lunch”, she will be able to guess at what the friend is saying. 


For many reasons, though, human speech  usually is much more complicated, and makes lip-reading harder. 


  1. People don’t always speak in full, grammatical sentences. 
  2. They may mumble or slur words. 
  3. A speaker may have a beard or a mustache, and a lip-reader sees only part of his lips.
  4. In real-life situations, a speaker is often turned away from the lip-reader, or the room lighting may be dim, or it may be outside in the dark at night.
  5. Many people have accents or other types of speech a lip-reader isn’t used to. 
  6. Many people will speak faster, or slower, than the lip-reader is accustomed to. 
  7. Human speech is fast anyway, even if one speaker is slow compared to other regional speakers. (A man from Brooklyn probably speaks faster than a man from Chicago, and they both speak much faster than a Texan.) A lip-reader seldom has much time to think about what the other speaker says. 
  8. “Competing noise” may distract the lip-reader or blur what the speaker says. We find competing noise in a busy cafeteria or coffee shop, at a shopping mall, on city sidewalks or near traffic, in factories or other work places, at airports and at auto repair garages, in or near city buses, in recording studios or at concerts, and many more situations. ##


  1. In the gif file below, try to lip-read what President Reagan is saying.


How well did you do? President Reagan was a trained actor with decades of experience and he also worked as a sports and product announcer. He’s right there in front of you, and you have a clear view of his lips. 



Fortunately we all speech-read, too, and most hard of hearing and deaf people develop high level skills at speech-reading. 


Speech-reading combines lip-reading, interpreting someone’s body language, and sizing up everything about how a person looks and behaves, all to figure out what the other person is saying. 


Suppose someone in an office sits in a chair and taps his fingers on a table, and his feet on the floor. His eyes dart and he keeps looking at his watch. His face takes on a worried expression, with wrinkles in his forehead and between his eyes, a tightened mouth and a frown.  Most of us can guess he’s worried or upset about something. That gives us a lot of cues about what he’s saying: We know he’s not telling a joke or a funny story, or asking us what we want for lunch, or telling us how good his college student son is doing. He might talk about business problems, but he’s more likely to talk about personal problems: he got a ticket for speeding, his wife is in prolonged labor at the hospital, his son broke his ankle skiing, his car needs a new transmission, the wind caused an oak tree to fall on his roof at home, he’s been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, his elderly father is dying, the IRS is auditing him, he lost $50,000 in Las Vegas over the weekend, or whatever it might be. (Maybe he only needs to use the restroom.)   


When we know the speaker and have experience talking with him, we know what he usually talks about. In that way we narrow the range of what he’s likely to be talking about. 


For example, if the other person is a woman you went to high school with, a probate attorney who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes with four grandchildren nearby, a woman who loves to ski and fly a plane, if she has ulcers, let’s say, and a fiance who’s a surgeon from Sweden who loves to cook Swedish dishes, you can assume she will usually talk to you about some of these subjects. She is unlikely to talk about Stanford University, or the town of Stockton, or the Japanese Nikkei, or the Persian language, or shopping in Manhattan, or sheep-herding. 


Therefore, when a hard of hearing or deaf friend listens to this Redondo Beach attorney, that friend has a reasonable expectation of what the attorney might say. 


Hard of hearing and deaf people use those kinds of strategies. Yes, sometimes we guess wildly wrong: the Rancho Palos Verdes attorney many have met a new friend from Stockton, a Stanford graduate, who trades on the Nikkei and has Persian clients, and recently returned from a shopping trip to Manhattan, where her Basque sheepherder great grandfather first arrived at Ellis Island in 1899. 


If you’ll permit me to be a little facetious, that’s why we call it hard of hearing or deaf: because we don’t hear very well or at all, and we make errors, or mistakes. But we do the best we can. 


Tough Skills To Develop? 


You may ask about how we develop these skills to listen and watch and use our strategies, because they seem complicated and elaborate. Maybe they are. We learn them through practice and perseverance, and we have to. I was hard of hearing at birth and by the time I was five years old, I’d learned to speech-read very well. You would, too, if you needed to. 


People with normal hearing speech-read, too, and in many professions, it’s vital that they do it well. A mother learns how to size up her children by the sound of their voices when cry as babies, and later, by the expressions on their faces, by what they usually talk about, and in many more ways. Except for hearing their voices, what moms do is a form of speech-reading.


Is Lip-Reading Useless? 


No. Not at all.


It’s only that what lip-reading can accomplish has been greatly exaggerated. 


I had a wrong idea of what lip-reading could accomplish for me when I was 13 years old and went to the House Clinic (House Ear Institute now) in Los Angeles. I’d recently lost some more of my hearing, and I had more trouble understanding people than ever before. They tested me, and I spoke to the chief audiologist in his office. I was upset and in tears, and asked him if I could learn to lip-read instead of wearing hearing aids, which I didn’t want to then.


He was a kind man and he said, “Paul, lip-reading alone won’t help you get along. That’s only in movies and TV, where someone supposedly understands everything by lipreading. Your hearing is no longer serviceable, and you need to wear aids.”


I think there was an episode of “Perry Mason” where one of the characters was deaf and did that amazing lip-reading that’s not actually possible. Not sure. 


Lip-Reading Testing


Some, not all, tests of lip-reading have been conducted in speech laboratories. The audiologist speaks to the patient-subject, and the patient-subject lip-reads. That’s a somewhat controlled, even artificial  situation, though, and the skill rates will be higher than if the patient-subject tried to lip-read during the sixth race at Santa Anita, or at a cha cha contest at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio in Beverly Hills, or inside the old Bethlehem Steel Mill on the day shift just outside downtown LA — or even with his friends on the Malibu Pier during a rainstorm, or inside Linbrook Bowling Alley in Anaheim, or when Grand Funk Railroad performs at the Forum in Inglewood, or when two ride a motorcycle together up PCH near Point Dume, or when they drive through a pitch dark stretch of road out in the desert — when the deaf passenger can’t see the driver’s face clearly — or when they hide in a closet at a surprise party and whisper together, or if they sit in Lancer Gym when the Lancers play varsity basketball against Fullerton Union High School.  



Reports of Virtuoso Lip-Readers


It seems about once a year someone tells me his grandmother or her great aunt or her own brother-in-law can lip-read “perfectly”,”everything”. 


I never insult people by telling them that’s impossible, and implying they’re lying. They believe what they say and they’re not lying. But it is generally impossible to do that, although there may be certain exceptions in a limited way. 


Let’s say Grandma Mabel and Grandpa  Fred from Oakland are 95 and 96 years old, respectively, and were married back around 1945 when Fred came home from the Seabees in Alaska. They raised three or four children together, let’s say, and since 1970 they have lived alone together. Let’s say Grandma has a moderate hearing loss and refuses to wear her Ronald Reagan-style in-the-ear hearing aid all the time. 


Both of them have had a LOT of experience in listening to and watching each other.  So if Grandma and Grandpa sit in their den or patio at home all day in Corona Del Mar, or Pasadena, or San Bernardino — and if they sit close together — Grandma will probably do a superb job of lip-reading what Grandpa says. Instead of understanding about 15% of what he says that way, she may “get” as much as 30%. That’s about the human limit. Besides, she knows the subjects he’s going to talk about, and he’s not going to say, “Mabel, let’s cruise up to Rincon and hang ten on a glassy set!” 




Lip-reading can be a good skill for those who are hard of hearing or deaf. It’s reasonably easy to learn.


Under no circumstances will lip-reading replace normal hearing, however. The most skillful lip-readers only “get” about 30% of what a speaker says in an ideal hearing situation. In most realistic hearing situations, the best someone can expect is about 15%.


The best bet for any hard of hearing person who wants to hear better is to concentrate on speech-reading and get hearing aids, and wear them all the time except sleeping and swimming or cliff-diving in Acapulco. 


Questions? My essay is based on my experience, watching others carefully all my life, and my speech pathology studies.