How does a deaf person communicate?

Deaf people have two main ways of communicating with others – lip reading and sign language. Learn more about these two forms of communication below.

How deaf people communicate

Deaf people may not be able to hear what you're saying, but that doesn't mean they can't understand you. Especially if they use lip reading as a way to interpret conversations.

Lip reading

This is a technique to understand speech by visually interpreting the movements of the lips and tongue, using facial expression and body language to help.

Lip readers also use information they have from:

  • The context (or topic) of the conversation – this helps narrow down the possible vocabulary they might be lip reading
  • The knowledge they have about the language and its lip patterns.
  • Any residual hearing they may have (with or without a hearing aid).

It is used by many deaf people who do not sign; especially those who were born hearing and have either gradually or suddenly lost their hearing during their life. It can be used with sign-supported English (SSE). This ‘borrows’ signs from British Sign Language and the speaker signs the key words in a normal English sentence while speaking in plain English.

Interesting facts about lip reading

Only 30% of spoken English can be accurately lip read (even by the best lip reader who has been deaf for many years).  This makes it very hard for a deaf person to correctly read the speaker’s lips. This is because many words cannot be differentiated as they have the same lip pattern. For example:

Words that sound the same and have different meanings, but look the same on the lips e.g. which / witch, or break / brake. There are many of these in the English language. Knowing the topic of conversation first helps the lip reader here.

Words that sound different and have different meanings, but look the same on the lips e.g. gap / cab / ham.  Try mouthing these words to yourself now and notice how you make the same lip pattern for each. Another example is mad / ban / mat.

Learning to lip read

Some people can lip read quite well and for others it is more difficult. To be a good lip reader it takes practice, skill and patience.  There are lip reading classes running around the country. Find out more information and to find a lip reading class near you.

Try it out for yourself!

Find out for yourself how difficult lip reading can be. Try our lip reading quiz to see if you can follow lip patterns.

Sign language

What is sign language?

Sign language comes in many forms. In the UK, deaf people use British Sign Language (known as BSL), but every country around the world has their own form of sign language.

British Sign Language (BSL)

  • This is used mainly by people who have been deaf from birth and who are often therefore part of the Deaf Community.
  • BSL is a visual language which uses hands, facial expression and body language.
  • BSL is a language in its own right, separate to English, and uses its own grammar structure. It also has regional signs across the UK (a little bit like regional spoken dialects).
  • BSL also uses the two-handed fingerspelling alphabet. This is used to spell names of people and places, or where the sign isn’t known. Lip readers may also use it to clarify words.

 BSL fingerspelling alphabet

Other types of sign language

  • Sign supported English (SSE): this ‘borrows’ signs from British Sign Language and the speaker signs the key words in a normal English sentence while speaking in plain English.
  • Makaton: this uses signs (simple gestures) and symbols (simple pictures) alongside speech. It is helpful for babies, children and adults whose language skills may be less developed. For more information contact the UK Makaton charity.
  • Cued speech: this is another visual method of communication. It combines lip patterns with hand ‘cues’ (different hand shapes and positions next to the mouth) to differentiate the sounds of a spoken language that may otherwise look the same on the lips. For more information, contact the UK Cued Speech Association.

Deafblind manual

This is a method of tactile communication for those who have both hearing and sight loss. A deafblind person may also use any of the following:

  • The block alphabet
  • Hands-on signing
  • Visual frame signing
  • Tadoma

For more information on communication methods for deafblind people, contact Deafblind UK.