A Vacancy of Perception.

Rachel Kolb, a graduate student in English, writes for Stanford magazine about how she experiences lipreading; it’s a fascinating read, and I’ll quote some excerpts here:

Lipreading, on which I rely for most social interaction, is an inherently tenuous mode of communication. It’s essentially a skill of trying to grasp with one sense the information that was intended for another. When I watch people’s lips, I am trying to learn something about sound when the eyes were not meant to hear.

Spoken words occur in my blind spot, a vacancy of my perception. But if I watch a certain way, I can bring them into enough focus to guess what they are. The brain, crafty as it is, fills in the missing information from my store of knowledge. […]

Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.

But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? […] Often I stick with contained discussion topics because they maximize the number of words I will understand. They make the conversation feel safe. “How are you?” “How’s school?” “Did you have a nice night?” Because I can anticipate that the other person will say “Fine, how are you?” or “Good,” I am at lower risk for communication failure. […]

The foundation for my success with communication was laid in my earliest years, at a deaf preschool. That was perhaps the only time in my life when I experienced full communication access each day. Everyone—students, teachers, speech therapists, parents, siblings—signed. From ages 2 to 5, I lived, breathed and conversed with people like me—at least, as alike as a young child understands. There was no reason for me to doubt myself or my abilities, so I grew fluent and confident with language. I learned its nuances, its facial and emotional expressions. I learned that it was not inaccessible, as it would sometimes later seem. […]

Deaf people—meaning Deaf people who live solely in the Deaf community, and hold on to an inherent pride in their Deafness—often speak of communicating as they please and letting the hearing world “deal with it.” They believe in the beauty and, dare I say it, the superiority of sign language. Spoken language, compared with the visual nuances of signing, might as well be caveman guttural grunts.

When I lipread, I leave the clarity of sign language behind. I attempt to communicate with hearing people on their terms, with no expectation that they will return the favor. The standards I am striving for seem ridiculous: I am trying singlehandedly to cross the chasm of disability. […]

I am 12 and at a summer camp for the deaf. The entire group has just gone whitewater rafting and is stopping to get ice cream. My peers line up by the counter, signing to each other about the flavors they want. I smile and join, finding the conversation perfectly normal. But when the clerk speaks to us, the other kids freeze like mice after the shadow of a hawk has swooped over the grass.

With a jolt, I realize that they have no means with which to understand this hearing woman. Most do not speak, go to deaf schools, have never had reason to learn to lipread. Their barrier is the same as mine, but completely—instead of partially—insurmountable.

“What did you say?” I ask the store attendant, looking her in the eye. My voice feels thick from disuse, but still I am aware of its clarity. The other kids stare at me, their hands slack.

“I said, would you like a free sample?” the attendant says. I understand her and sign the message to the others. They nod, and sign which flavors they want to taste. I repeat, speaking, to the attendant.

After the ordering, when I finally sit down, my own ice cream in hand, I feel strangely lightheaded. This—being able to endow spoken words with meaning, rather than having them translated by somebody else—is new for me. Because I have so often felt powerless, I have never realized the power that I possess.

Lots more at the link. (That last story reminds me of my experience in 1971 Moscow with a tour group; I didn’t speak much Russian, but none of the others spoke any, so I was the one who had to deal with asking questions like where to catch the bus. Nervous-making, but satisfying when it worked!)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The audiologist was right: Rachel Kolb surely is amazing.

    Although she is certainly unusual, her account made me think about how extraordinary it is that we successfully communicate with one another at all, in the face of multiple interacting ambiguities, general static on the line, and so forth, and how much of our communication depends on prior understanding of what we expect people to be saying, and therefore on how good we are at thinking ourselves into another’s point of view while we communicate.

    (Conversely, as The Right Stuff has it, “It can blow at any seam.”)

  2. I recall a conversation with my wife one summer night, looking at the moon, talking about the woman in the moon, as opposed to the man in the moon. I made some comment which she didn’t understand; we decided to each take a piece of paper and compare our portraits. Mine was matronly and busty, viewed from the side; hers was full frontal, wearing a witches hat.

  3. When I lipread, I leave the clarity of sign language behind. I attempt to communicate with hearing people on their terms, with no expectation that they will return the favor.

    About not returning the favor:

    The literary historian Hugh Kenner was also a political conservative and a fierce apologist for Pound’s politics, early and late. Early, he helped the Pound family publish a selection from Pound’s wartime radio broadcasts from Fascist Rome which minimized culpability by omitting the explicitly treasonous parts.* Late, he discussed Pound on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in an exchange which seared itself into my memory this way.

    BUCKLEY: Was Pound a Fascist?

    KENNER: No.

    BUCKLEY: Henri Peyre says he was a Fascist.

    KENNER: Henri Peyre wites for the New York Times Book Weview.

    Kenner talked that way because he was deaf. That didn’t prevent him from hearing the rhythms and helping us hear them ourselves in his great The Pound Era.

    And none of this saved him from Pound’s scorn in a letter (September 30, 1955) to his Fascist friend Olivia Rossetti Agresti:

    “doing all he dares/ marked as a poundista. but less so than is supposed. [. . .] Incapable of main ideas/ AND a deaf man who reads lips NOT best for public job.” (“I Cease Not to Yowl”: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti, ed. Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos and Leon Surette [University of Illinois Press, 1998], letter 102)

    * “Giving aid and comfort to the enemy, the United States then being at war.”

  4. The image I see in the moon is a face, a woman’s face showing the sadness of all humankind.

  5. David Marjanović says

    The image I see in the moon is 😮 (but with bigger eyes).

  6. Something like that, yes.

    I wonder how people see Cain with his thornbush, though?

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