Have you ever considered how much of speaking and comprehension is visual? Try watching a film with the volume off and notice that your eyes go to the next best cue for what the speaker is saying - the lips.
Do you notice how the shape and position of the lips clearly helps to distinguish which sound someone is making? Look in a mirror and say the vowel sound OO as in 'food' and then the vowel sound EE as in 'seen'. In a standard British English accent the lips change from a rounded, pouting shape to a slightly spread, subtle smiling shape. So, the shape and position of your lips helps in two ways - it suggests to your listener (or observer) which sound you are using visually which consequently helps you to be more clearly understood.
Now, if you overuse your lips you might start to look and feel a bit strange not to mentioned a bit patronising. But observing these different shapes evidently helps you to be more clearly understood - so it doesn’t just benefit you if you're speaking in a loud or busy place or to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.
However there is a third benefit - it impacts on the sound and tone of your pronunciation. Different accents use their articulators (tongue, lips, soft palate) in very different ways. Changing the habitual positions and shapes of the lips in pronunciation can be a game-changer in your journey towards speaking English more clearly. For example, say the word 'food' with very wide, spread lips, and then with rounded lips. Can you hear the difference? Try the same thing with 'you', 'shoe', 'move' and 'soon' - it changes the quality and tone of the pronunciation, right? All of these word are pronounced with rounded lips in a standard British English accent.
And the good news is that so long as you know which shapes go with which sounds in the target accent, it's something that you can work on independently - just make sure you have a mirror! So the question is: are you using these visual cues to their full benefit?
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Want to test your lip reading skills?
Check out this blog post from the BBC Ouch - Charlie's Lip Reading Challenge
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