You might think that I haven’t done much living up to my name recently, though every step forward is a little bit of sound language learnt and filed away. Nevertheless, it strikes me that much of what I’m writing about has to do with neurolinguistics – the processes by which the brain acquires, processes and makes sense of language.
If you’re a long-term lipreader, your eyes take over from your ears in understanding speech. Where I’m at at the moment is understanding most people pretty well without relying on lipreading, but without giving it up. It’s actually very hard for me to tell where lipreading ends and listening begins – two complementary tools for comprehension – because I’m doing both, most of the time, but I can feel the pull towards listening becoming ever stronger, and more natural.
It seems really random. The Bear often starts talking to me while I’m reading, as he has the knack of ripping me away from a really interesting bit, and I answer, and he keeps batting the conversational ball back every time my eye goes back on the page. I’m a fast reader, but he’s a fast talker, and I can’t believe that I still revert back to the same paragraph over and over again. (I’m guilty of it too. Hands up.) He has that knack of doing it just at the crucial moment in a TV show and because he’s not listening either, neither of us ever finds out what happens. (Yes, there is iPlayer, but . . . ) It never used to fill me with such fury when I could only lipread – though it was still irritating then, because the clue’s in the word “lip-reading“. When reading – or concentrating really hard on my work, say – if someone spoke to me it would take a moment to make the shift from reading the written word to the spoken word, much like taking in first one text, then another.
What I suspect I need to do is work out how to carry on reading – my book, the article in the newspapers, the subtitles on the telly – and listening to the person who’s talking to me? It just seems instinctive to look at whoever is talking to you – it’s rude not to! – but it will be good listening training trying to take in Bear without looking while having half an eye on the TV subtitles. It’s hearing in noise training, even. My eyes and ear have to swap over.
I managed it the other night without even trying. Dad and I were watching TV one evening while Mum was in hospital recently. The phone rang and I hit the mute button, continuing to watch the programme with subtitles, but also listening to both sides of the conversation as I could hear my aunt’s voice leaking through the phone, and understanding every word. It was probably easier, because, of course, my aunt wasn’t there to see what she was saying, and you don’t eavesdrop on the phone (though that’s just what I was doing really) but I wouldn’t normally watch my father talking on the phone. Interesting thought – cultural norms have an impact on learning to interpret what we hear. Behavioural linguistics it is then!