Lip-reading is something of an art, as many sounds look nearly the same on a person’s lips. (The words bob, mom, and pop, for example — try it in the mirror.)
But with a bit of context — say, a questionable call by a referee in an Eagles game that was quickly heading south — a trained lip-reader often can get a good idea of what someone is saying.
Alas, that was the case for Eric Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, whose remarks during the broadcast of Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions went viral.
“What are you looking at? Boooo!! What the f— are you looking at?” he appeared to be saying from his seat at Lincoln Financial Field.
Three experts in lip-reading — the technical term is speech-reading — came up with that interpretation after reviewing the video at The Inquirer’s request.
They included Rachel Kolb, a doctoral student in Emory University’s English department who studies deafness and communication; Susan M. Hammond, a speech therapist in Blue Bell; and Robert Serianni, chair and program director of the department of speech-language pathology at Salus University, in Elkins Park.
In this case, even someone without formal training could do fairly well at deciphering the heated remarks, Serianni said.
“I’m pretty sure we can all read some pretty colorful language in what he was saying,” he said.
“After further review of the play I will take the 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct,” he tweeted.
But in general, it is hard to tell what a person is saying by looking at lip movements alone.
A bit of background: The reason speech pathologists call it speech-reading, not lip-reading, is that the practice involves much more than looking at a person’s lips. The speaker’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and context all come into play.
Even with those added cues, speech-reading is not foolproof.
That’s true, in part, because certain sounds are homophenous: indistinguishable on a person’s lips when no sound is present, Serianni said. In addition to the example of p, b, and m, the sounds “f” and “v” look similar, as do “k” and a hard “g.”
So Furda could have been saying, “What the vug are you looking at?”
But given the context, probably not.
Vowels are especially difficult to “read,” as they are formed primarily inside the mouth. The difference in saying “ah” and “uh,” for example, is a matter of changing the placement of the tongue by just a few millimeters, Serianni said.
“That’s imperceptible, really, to the naked eye,” he said.
Kolb, who has profound hearing loss in both ears, wrote about the challenges of speech reading in an essay for Stanford University Magazine, titled “Seeing at the Speed of Sound.” She also was featured in a popular video about the topic called “Can You Read My Lips?” by Little Moving Pictures, a San Francisco production studio.
She wrote about how a friend once told her that her deciphering abilities would allow her to become a spy. If only it were that easy.
For those speaking with a hearing-impaired person, several reminders are important.
Shouting, contrary to popular belief, usually does not help the speech-reader to understand, said Hammond, the speech therapist in Blue Bell. When a person shouts, the lips become distorted, making comprehension more difficult.
Serianni said the same goes for people who speak in an exaggerated fashion, as in, “Can you hearrrr what I’m saaay-ing?”
Not helpful. Just make direct eye contact and try again in a normal voice.
Though in this case, Furda was shouting, and his meaning was loud and clear.
“With the context,” Serianni said, “we can clearly define the words that are coming out of that gentleman’s mouth.”