Sunday 24 September 2017

Watch My Lips!

Hearing is not one of my strengths. I may have mentioned it before and it was certainly the subject of this post, when I spoke about the best Christmas present for people hard of hearing, and this one, written that glorious day when I became the relieved owner of my state of the art, blue tooth hearing aids. It was the day I realised that the seatbelt makes a noise when you pull it across your chest, that footsteps are audible and that when a car sounds terrifyingly close, it's probably happily zooming down an adjacent street, you've just got used to the level of engine sound which sends the message to your brain not to attempt to cross that road if you want to reach the other side.

I've also spoken about the glorious age of hearing technology in which we live and how I should be reprimanded when I moan about the negative impact of phones on our lives because, for me, the good side to the little beauties: messaging, emailing, social media and not least, bitmojis, as recently introduced to me by my eldest, far outweighs the negative effect they have on sociability and community. 
Who needs to hear when
you've got this up your sleeve?

Nonetheless, I can't pretend I am always upbeat about my lack of hearing. Being unable to participate in conversations when the environment is too much even for my amazing aids, or when, horror of horrors, they break (they are very tiny and packed with very clever technology so alas, they do need a little tlc fairly regularly) or somebody goes from whisper to full-on shout, accompanied by pained expression, with no warning of the escalation to come, so I just want to slink away, and when I'm struggling to work - then it gets me down.

Enter: a lipreading course.

Finally, after nine months on the waiting list, my first class was today. I was ridiculously excited about the life-changing, or at least, life-improving, potential for this. But I was also nervous. The stakes were high. I'd been told the art of lipreading is tricky and at the very least, I'd need to dedicate a year to this new skill, probably more. I was, and am, prepared for that. If it works it will be hours enormously well spent. But with such high hopes, I knew I'd be disappointed crushed if ten minutes in I had that sinking feeling that this might not be the miracle I'd hoped it could be. I'd also missed the first week of the course due to holiday and if I've got to be a newbie, I'd rather be a newbie amongst newbies.

So, after following Maps on foot to a street I already know but 'just to be sure' (I never learn), I made only two wrong turns and was still outside the classroom ten minutes early. Ten minutes early for me, is half an hour in punctual people's worlds. I was quite proud of myself; the extra ten minutes would allow time for me to meet the teacher, make payment and apologise in person for missing the first week. Not so, my class is full of punctual people. Only two students arrived after me and one of those had been stuck on a five mile stretch of the A1 for two hours. No matter, everybody smiled kindly, the teacher welcomed me several times and I settled myself in, making my first mistake before the lesson had officially started, by answering the teacher whilst rummaging in my bag. You'd think I'd know better. She asked the question again, and I realised the teacher's hearing was even worse than mine.

Quickly, I began to realise that I'd entered a meeting room unlike any other I'd ever been in. Everybody waits to speak; no two people speak at one time. If somebody doesn't hear, their neighbour softly taps them on the arm and repeats it to them, and everybody is quiet while they do. Nobody worries about saying 'pardon' – none of the 'two pardon lives' here, where instead of the third 'pardon' it's preferable to simply nod or shake the head (a scrutiny of the speaker's facial expression is a fairly reliable guide to which way to go), allowing the two or more of you to move smoothly away from the troublesomely awkward conversation – no, here, you can pardon all you like. No background radio, no noisy fans and the blinds, crucially, were drawn. I joke that if I could carry out my life in the soundproofed booth of the audiologist's testing centre, I wouldn't need hearing aids, and this room came a very close second to that. I should add that once comfortable, I found myself discretely checking out everybody's hearing aids – which is tricky as they're so tiny these days – so, let it never be said that I don't know how to party.

On with the lesson and we talked about barriers to effective lipreading and how to get around them, practised comprehension of a passage about the history of London's coffee houses with the teacher soundlessly mouthing each short sentence – I understood enough to know that it wasn't Starbucks who started it all - and practised the number six (it's the hardest to spot) as well as the 'ff' sound.

In short, in no particular order, this is what I learnt:
  • If I really concentrate, focus, clear my mind of the other rubbish, I can already understand a fair bit.
  • Ask your friends if they'll kindly let you sit with your back to the window in a restaurant so that you don’t have to wrestle with the light casting shadows over their faces.
  • 'Coffee' is easily mixed up with toffee, fluffy, muffly, wavy, banoffee, lovely and jiffy – but surprisingly not so much in context – which is comforting to know.
  • 'Coffee' looks very different to 'tea' and so you won't end up with the wrong drink, even if you can't catch who's paying.
  • Our teacher developed almost total deafness over the course of twenty years and communicated well through lipreading, until she had a cochlear implant a few years ago. It's wonderful to know she could manage but lipreading doesn't help you hear the birds or music, does it? This is one of those occasions where you have to love technology.
  • The first coffee houses grew up in London in the 1600s and by the 18th century, there were over 3,000 of them.
  • If you feel able, ask the person with whom you're speaking to remove sunglasses, a hat, hair over the eyes, perhaps their hand in front of their face, as these all affect your ability to lip read.
  • Charles 2nd didn’t like coffee houses because politicians gave away all their secrets chatting in them.
  • The art of understanding the spoken word through reading lips is written, 'lipreading' as opposed to, 'lip reading'.
  • Artificial light is better for lipreading than natural light.
  • Women didn't like coffee houses because the, 'new-fangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called "coffee" had transformed their industrious, virile men into unfruitful, babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffee houses', or so said the Women's Petition in 1674. It made no difference and yes, that section was written down for us. Try me again in a couple of years on that one.
  • Certain people are easier to lipread than others.
  • I am by far the worst in the class. This is good because the others have been coming for months if not years and thus proof that it is possible to learn this stuff.
  • If you've been all-consumed with getting out of the door on time for your class and have thus forgotten about breakfast, none of the other students, nor the teacher, will hear your stomach rumbling and crashing around. 

So, did I enjoy my first class? Certainly. Will I be going back? Absolutely. Will I develop the skill to read what people are saying on the other side of the room?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it…??