ToC P 1 2 3 4 M

Art of Cueing: Preliminaries


From a cue receiver's viewpoint, Cued Speech is a lip- or speechreading supplement. Handshapes and hand placements provide extra information about the consonants and vowels being uttered so that a spoken message can be understood completely, even though it is not heard.

Cued Speech is a phonemic system; it is based on the sounds that make up words in a given language. English uses about forty phonemes, but other languages may use more or less (Cue systems have been worked out for 52 languages). Phonemes are categorized into two broad categories, consonants and vowels. Consonant are cued with handshapes and vowels with hand placements. Eight handshapes and four placements are sufficient to represent the twenty-five consonants and fifteen vowels that occur in English because cues are used in conjunction with speechreading; cues need only distinguish between phonemes that look the same on the lips. An entire utterance is cued by mentally dividing it into consonant-vowel pairs and then forming the consonant's handshape while moving the hand to the vowel's placement for each pair. All cues occur while speaking (or at least mouthing).  The net result is that a cue reader sees a unique visual pattern -- a combination of handshape, placement and mouth shape -- for each sound component in the utterance.

The Eight Handshapes
1 Index finger extended
2 Index and middle fingers extended
3 Middle, ring and pinkie fingers extended
4 All fingers extended, thumb down
5 All fingers extended, thumb up
6 Index finger extended, thumb up
7 Index and middle fingers extended, thumb up
8 Index and middle fingers spread
The Four Placements
Mouth corner
Chin tip
Throat at bottom of adam's apple
Side, four inches to side of chin tip

Learning to Cue

Cueing is relatively easy to learn; it requires about twenty hours to memorize the system at which point anything that can be spoken can be cued, albeit slowly. It is best to learn from a certified instructor in a face-to-face setting. Classes are offered at cue camps, workshops, and in Cued Speech centers at a variety of places and times throughout the year.  It is much easier to follow a demonstration than read a wordy explanation.  Additionally, misunderstandings can be nipped in the bud before they become bad habits difficult to correct later.

Learning to cue is like learning to take shorthand or to type. After the basic system is learned, regular practice is required to develop speed and fluency. You must, over time, develop the ability to automatically translate your internal representations for words as sounds into manual patterns. Surprisingly, the hardest part will be identifying the sounds you actually produce when you speak.  We're more accustomed to dividing words into letters for spelling than into phonemes and this often leads us astray. Consider the classic reporter's questions: who? what? when? where? and why?  Although they all begin with WH, who does not begin with the same sound as the others; it begins with the same sound as how. When we cue these words, therefore, who and how begin with the same handshape cue while what, when, where and why will begin with another handshape.

Proficiency, the second stage after learning the basic system, generally takes a few months depending on how often you cue. At this stage, the cues come automatically for simple and commonly used words and phrases. You'll be able to cue at perhaps half your normal speaking rate. Talking slowly is frustrating, but there is a silver lining: your deaf or hard of hearing partner will find you easier to understand.

Fluency is the ultimate stage. Your hands will generate cues as you speak as quickly as you like and with no conscious effort. Of course this requires constant practice and improvements are possible over a lifetime.

On Pronunciation

In this document, pronunciations will generally be described by phoneme sequences enclosed in slashes. Each phoneme is described by one or two letters.  Our codes for the vowel phonemes in American English Cued Speech:
/a/ as in at /ah/ as in mom /aw/ as in tall /ay/ as in say /e/ as in Ted
/ee/ as in tree /i/ as in it /ie/ as in aisle /oe/ as in toe /oi/ as in toy
/oo/ as in look /ou/ as out /ue/ as in blue /uh/ as in but /ur/ as in herd
Our codes for the consonants:
/b/ as in bat /ch/ as in chop /d/ as in dog /f/ as in fate /g/ as in guest
/h/ as in heat /j/ as in Jill /k/ as in kite /l/ as in loose /m/ as in moist
/n/ as in nook /ng/ as in sang /p/ as in pout /r/ as in red /s/ as in such
/sh/ as in sure /t/ as in tap /th/ as in thin /TH/ as in they /v/ as in vet
/w/ as in wet /wh/ as in whip /y/ as in you /z/ as in zoo /zh/ as in beige
A few may be unfamiliar: The phonemic transcriptions in this document are descriptive, not prescriptive.  They describe how the authors say these words, not how you should pronounce them.  You should always cue what you say.  It is vital that your cues match what your mouth is doing since only the cues and lips together add up to a complete message.  Think how distracting and irritating dubbed movies are: peoples' lips do one thing while the soundtrack does another.  For a cue reader, mismatched lips and cues are at best distracting and at worst turn your message into gibberish.

Cueing what you say is not always easy because your pronunciation varies depending on many factors: where you grew up, how your parents spoke, how much TV you watch, who your friends are, etc. In addition, everyone alters their speech when talking to friends, a boss, a child, etc., when speaking quickly, when angry, sad or excited, or to emphasize a word or phrase. For example, when speaking deliberately between might be pronounced /b ee t w ee n/, but in a conversation it would more likely be pronounced /b i t w een/ or /b uh t w ee n/.  Our brains normally filter out these variations in pronunciations; just the word between is perceived. In cueing, however, the cues must always match the lips so you need to become aware of the actual sounds you produce.

You can practice hearing the variations in speech sounds by listening to other people.  You will soon discover that no two people pronounce everything the same way.  Dialects or regional accents are systematic variations in pronunciations shared by groups of people.  Vowels differ the most. For example, hot might be pronounced /h ah t/ or /h aw t/. The /r/ phoneme is also highly variable. It appears at the ends of some words in parts of New Hampshire, /b uh n a n er/ for banana, disappears at the ends of words in parts of Massachusetts, /c ah/ for car, and, for some Midwesterners, appears again in the middle of words such as /w oe r sh/ for wash. Even the number of syllables in a word can change. You might say /h ee uh/ or /h i r/ for here.  There is no right, correct or best dialect. How drab the world would be without Mel Gibson's Australian twang, Sean Connery's Scottish lilt, the Southern drawl, or even Valley-girl speak. Cue your dialect!

People often ask, if everyone cues words differently, won't cue receivers be confused? Not any more than a hearing person would be by an accent, which is to say hardly at all. This is one of the strengths of cueing; the receiver gets access to the complete phonological content of speech. They can understand, appreciate and adapt to different dialects just as a hearing person can.

ToC P 1 2 3 4 M

© 1998-2001 J. Frisbie