The Insider

Lip Reader

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

After the World Cup soccer final earlier this month, speculation and theories swirled around the surprise head butt France's Zinedine Zidane delivered to the chest of Italian Marco Materazzi. Since few were privy to that intimate conversation, various groups have hired lip readers to decipher (on tape) the words between the two athletes.

J. Tilak Ratnanather has spent his entire life reading lips. He was born deaf and at a young age learned to communicate by reading lips (facilitated by digital hearing aides). Today, he's an assistant research professor at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Imaging Science and Institute for Computational Medicine, where he explores auditory and psychiatric disorders in the brain.

On a Sunday afternoon, we sat down at One World Cafe in Baltimore to discuss lip reading in sports, "Seinfeld" and mouthy Americans.

What does lip reading entail, and how is it related to hearing?

We use visual cues and a little bit of listening to communicate. It is a combination of speech discrimination and listening. I don't have good speech discrimination, so I have to use my eyes to process the information. It's the same thing with hearing people. You use your eyes to understand what I am saying, especially in loud places.

Are there certain words or sounds that the eye, ear and cognitive mind may misinterpret?

If you say "ba," that is auditory. But visually it comes out as "ga." The outcome of "ba" and "ga" is that "da" is perceived. That's what we call the McGurk effect, and that's why lip reading isn't perfect. Two people can interpret the same sentence completely different. . . . Henry Kisor wrote an autobiography called "What's That Pig Outdoors?" When he was a boy, his father was in the kitchen and there was a big loud noise and his father said, "What's that big loud noise out there?" and Henry thought there was a pig outdoors.

Is that why lip readers couldn't agree on what Materazzi said to Zidane?

[The professional lip reader] gave the phonetic reading and then it was translated into Italian. Now the Italian word for terrorist -- terrorista -- looks the same as the Italian word for sister. That was the root of the confusion. When people ask what did [Materazzi] say, some said, "You are the terrorist son of a whore." But others thought he said something against [Zidane's] mother or sister. It is very difficult to read it 100 percent.

I notice that in football the coach will often cover his mouth. What's going on?

The football huddle was invented by a player at Gallaudet University during the turn of last century. At that time, they would communicate by sign language and the opposing team would figure out what they were doing, so they developed the huddle to prevent the other team from learning their strategies. In football now, the coaches will cover their mouths because they do not want the opposing coach or one of their assistants reading their lips. They are not trained, but they might be able to catch a few words the other coach is saying, like "right, left, hook." The easy words.

When you watch sports on TV, do you find yourself trying to read the athletes' lips?

When I watch soccer, I watch their mouths. They swear a lot, much more than the NBA, NFL and hockey. In football, they have mouth guards, so it's hard to see what they are saying. But [tennis player] John McEnroe -- I could figure out what he was saying.

What about reading lips surreptitiously?

When I am at a bar or restaurant I can do that. Most deaf people do it. You must remember that "Seinfeld" episode [when George asks a hearing-impaired woman to read his ex-girlfriend's lips at a party]. When I was maybe 20 or 22, people would ask me in a bar, "What did that person say?" I am pretty respectful now; it's like eavesdropping.

What about facial adornments, like beards or bright red lipstick. Do they ever interfere?

Yes and no. If they have clear lips, then it will be okay. But if they have big thick beards, then it will not be possible to read their lips. Lipstick? No, lipstick does not confound.

Are some nationalities or accents easier to understand than others?

The English have what you call a stiff upper lip. Quite a large proportion of British people do not move their lips. For the most part, it is easier to understand Americans. They move their whole mouth.

Besides assisting the hard of hearing, and the odd sports brouhaha, what other industries employ professional lip readers?

There are forensic lip readers, and the FBI and CIA use lip readers to review surveillance tapes. There is also a TV show about it, called "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" [on WPXW-Channel 66]. And lip readers are now being used in hospitals. When there is difficulty understanding a patient -- but the patient is not deaf -- a lip-reading service can translate for the doctors and family what the patient is saying.

Before we go, can we "eavesdrop" on that party of four sitting in the corner?

It is difficult right now because they have food in their mouths. They are chewing.

To learn more about lip reading, contact the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (202-337-5220, TTY: 202-337-5221,

© 2006 The Washington Post Company