When I was in grade eight, our class watched and then discussed a film. I was asked a question about the film by my teacher, a recent arrival from Australia. In addition to a strong Aussie accent, he had a very bushy moustache, impeding my ability to read his lips. That plus the accent made it too difficult for me to understand the question so I asked him to repeat it. He did, but I still couldn’t understand what he said. Rather than admit I didn’t hear, something I couldn’t bring myself to do until well into my thirties in fact, I said I didn’t know the answer. My classmates burst out laughing and I knew they must be laughing at me. I later found out that the question was “What is the capital of Canada?” This was not, needless to say, the happiest of school memories.
My cochlear implant has improved my life in immeasurable ways and I do hear much better than I did back in grade eight. But I often still need to lip read to understand what is being said. And as with my experience with that Aussie teacher, I am also stymied by accents. The words not only sound different but they actually look different when formed by the lips.
Let me give you an example. Many years ago I attended a conference in San Diego put on by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. This was the perfect place for a deaf person to be because not only was everyone aware of our needs, the services available greatly enhanced our ability to hear and understand. One such service was the oral interpreter. This person takes what is being said by the speaker and mouths the words silently, sometimes changing the word or phrase to make it easier to lip read. I had my own oral interpreter and within minutes of watching her lips knew she was from Chicago, even though I did not actually hear the sound of her voice. I had cousins living in that area and knew how Chicagoans sounded. I could see her lips form the broad and long ‘ah’ sound like Chigaaaago and heard it in my mind’s eye so to speak. The ‘a’ looked different.
Hearing without being able to lip read can be challenging and a lot of the difficulty in my case is due to accents. A few weeks ago I listened to a series of short videos in preparation for a course I was taking. The videos consisted of a narrator as a voice-over and the main speaker looking into the camera. While I could understand the main speaker, I was totally lost when it came to the narrator as there was no captioning to help me. It was a woman’s voice, somewhat soft and with a bit of a drawl I think. But her accent was too hard for me to understand the words she spoke and of course there was no way I could read her lips.
Recently however, I had a totally different experience with accents, which is why I am writing this post. My sister and I watched a show called The Edwardian Farm on YouTube. The show is British and includes a narrator plus three main characters working a farm as it would have been in Edwardian days. While it was difficult for me to get what the three main characters were saying unless they faced the camera, I could understand the plummy BBC-type accent of the narrator perfectly. And just last week I was listening to a pod cast of a lecture given by a Cosmologist from the Perimeter Institute. He is originally from South Africa but studied in England and had a similar accent to the Edwardian Farm narrator. Again, I understood him perfectly.
I’m not exactly sure why I can understand one accent and not the other, although I suspect that a lot has to do with pitch and enunciation as well as the deliberate cadence of the speaker. But it is an eye-opener for me to know this. I think I shall have to move to London!