Tuesday, May 13, 2008


One of the unexpected consequences of aging, I have long thought, is diminishing lipreading skills. In the last few years I've had a little more difficulty understanding other people. It's taking longer to get used to the speech patterns of strangers. Possibly my intellect is not quite as nimble as it used to be -- I once was crackerjack at guessing what people would say if I knew the context, the subject of conversation. And my vision isn't what it used to be, either.

Until my recent hospital stay, I hadn't credited one other cause of this phenomenon: rapidly growing ethnic diversity in the United States.

There I would be, lying flat on my back, as Indian, Sri Lankan, Jamaican, Spanish, Arabic, Filipino, Russian and Central European doctors, nurses and technicians poked at me while speaking in puzzling accents and syntaxes. (My surgeon is Bosnian, from Sarajevo, but speaks excellent English and with such sweeping facial expressiveness he is easy to lipread.)

This wide range should not have surprised me, for medicine attracts immigrants from everywhere, and Evanston Hospital is a teaching institution affiliated with Northwestern University Medical School.

Still, for an old guy who grew up in the 1950s in a place where everyone spoke Midwestern white-bread farm-boy English, understanding new kinds of folks always has been a challenge. In college it took a while to adjust to my roommates' Bahston accents, and only after years of watching closed-captioned BBC "Masterpiece Theatre" dramas did I get used to British English. Rapid-fire New Yorkese still buffaloes me, and so does Ebonics.

All this notwithstanding, there were only two occasions in the hospital in which I had to resort to paper and pencil. One of them: "Where are you taking me?" I said to the guy with the gurney, who, after much patient struggle, picked up pad and pencil and wrote "X-ray."

One way or another we managed to connect, and that is all that matters.


  1. Very interesting. I find the most difficult accent to understand to be that of a dyed-in-the-wool native Mainer. Can only imagine what that would be like for someone deaf to comprehend. Then again, maybe it would be an advantage :-)

  2. Ayuh! Those State-o'-Mainers!

    The big problem for most American lipreaders, I think, is the "r" sound. In American English in general, both the preceding "r" and the following "r" are produced with the lips as well as the structures of the mouth. That pooched-out lower lip is a sure sign of "r."

    But the continental "r" is formed almost entirely inside the mouth and is invisible to the lipreader.

    Ah, those Frrrrrrrrogs!

  3. It sounds almost as if you regret the diminishing whiteness of the United States.

  4. You kiddin' me? You kiddin' ME?

    Challenging as increased diversity may be for me as a lipreader, I think it makes our country stronger and more interesting.

    And it helps expose nerves of racism that we can then heal with education and example.

  5. Why don't you just learn sign language? Your life would be so much easier.

  6. And with whom would I speak sign language? I live in the hearing world, which in the main knows jack about sign.

    At the hospital NOT ONE person spoke in sign. In fact, the surgery secretary said it was unlikely they'd be able to find a sign language interpreter to accommodate my needs before the operation and afterward.

    An oral interpreter (one who is easy to lipread) would have been more logical, but they are very scarce in these parts. No problem. My Lady Friend helped me bridge the lipreading gap in the surgical prep room and afterward.

    I am always astounded at how ignorant people are about the deaf, assuming as they tend to do that we all speak sign language. Talk about stereotypes!