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The kind of full-face veil I'm thinking of is the Niqāb - it covers the entire face except the eyes.

I don't have any ideological objections to people who choose to wear the full-face veil. However, by its very nature, the veil makes it hard to hear what the student is saying since it muffles the voice.

If an instance arises where such students are hard to hear, is it appropriate to ask them to speak louder? I notice students who wear full-face veils already tend to be rather silent, and if doing so makes them even less likely to speak up, it might be counterproductive.

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    A bunch of answers-in-comments have been moved to chat. Please consider posting them as actual answers. Any answers-in-comments below this one will be deleted.
    – cag51
    Aug 13 at 1:47
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    As an aside, covering the mouth while speaking causes problems with understanding even beyond the muffling effect. Hearing relies on visual cues, as well as auditory ones (see The McGurk Effect - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McGurk_effect)
    – DrMcCleod
    Aug 13 at 9:48
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It is appropriate to ask a student to speak louder if, and only if, that is necessary for you to hear and understand what they are saying. Of course, I assume you will make the request politely and in a friendly tone of voice.

This applies to all students regardless of the specific reason why you are having trouble hearing them.

Don’t bring up religion or religious garb, they have nothing to do with the issue. Don’t say you “believe in tolerance”, “don’t have a an ideological objection” to anyone’s choice of what to wear, that you “respect everyone’s religious beliefs”, or anything of that sort that conflates the practical issue with irrelevant underlying causal effects. Such assurances may be well-intended and motivated by a desire to make the student feel at ease with your request, but they could easily have the opposite effect and be perceived as treating the student differently based on her religious beliefs. The best way to make the student feel respected is to treat the matter as the purely practical issue that it is (and to treat the student’s religion as the irrelevant factor that it is, by not referring to it).

Now, if this approach I’m recommending still has the effect of causing the student discomfort and making her avoid asking questions, that is not your fault. It is too bad, but even the responsibility of a teacher to be as supportive as possible has its limits. Teaching is a two-way street, and if a student can’t speak loudly enough so you can understand what they are saying, for whatever reason, your ability to offer them effective instruction is unfortunately going to be somewhat limited.

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    Prefacing the request to speak louder with assurances of religious tolerance is like wearing a shirt that says "I am not a murderer" and wondering why so many questions are raised that your shirt addresses. If there is no issue, then don't act like there is.
    – Issel
    Aug 12 at 14:33
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    In addition to this good and popular answer, I'd like to recommend prompting the student to speak louder in a way that is not in front of the whole class. Catch them on the way in or out of class. Be friendly and positive, compliment their answers or ideas, make their contributions in class feel welcomed. I've noticed when asking for any student to speak up that some quiet/shy speakers get more overwhelmed when corrected at all in front of the entire class, even if about something simple like voice volume.
    – jdf
    Aug 12 at 14:34
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    "I'm a little hard of hearing. Could you speak up, please?" I most recently said this to a student wearing a cloth mask over her N95 respirator mask.
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 12 at 15:02
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    @BobBrown sure, that’s one way to do it. Personally I’m not a big fan of the “it’s not you, it’s me” category of white lies, but they seem to be pretty popular, so I’ll grant that they may be a reasonable solution to thorny social etiquette dilemmas, including possibly the current situation. (And if it’s not a white lie but actually a true statement then it’s certainly an appropriate way to handle the situation.)
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 12 at 15:09
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    @DanRomik Th' good news in this case is that I actually am a little hard of hearing. The less good news is that I probably would have done the same thing 40 years earlier. The other approach is, "I'm having trouble hearing you. Could you speak up, please?" Always true in the given circumstance.
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 12 at 15:14
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Just say, and don't sweat it

Ironically enough, this is a problem which Covid has made a non-issue. Everyone has been wearing face masks, and many of us still are in enclosed spaces. We all know how masks make your voice less clear, and we're all pretty used to saying when someone's mask is affecting you hearing them clearly.

Sure, her reason for wearing a face covering is different from the rest of us - but the effect is the same. Do the same as you would for anyone else wearing a facemask, and don't worry. You're not discriminating against her, because you're applying the same criteria which you've been applying to everyone else for the last 18 months.

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I notice students who wear full-face veils already tend to be rather silent, and if doing so makes them even less likely to speak up, it might be counterproductive.

Perhaps, but I also can't imagine it's productive if they speak up but you can't hear them (and therefore presumably can't respond properly to their question/comment). If you can't hear what this student is saying, for whatever reason, then I see no reason that it would be impolite to ask her to speak louder. In my case, I have quite bad hearing anyway, so I sometimes ask students to speak up, and I often accompany this by telling them that my hearing is not so good. Sometimes I have to do this a few times if a student is speaking softly. If you would like to "soften" the request to speak up then you could put the blame on your bad hearing (as I do).

As a secondary matter, I see the duties of a good academic as going beyond the teaching of their narrow specialty area, also encompassing the teaching of the kinds of adult soft-skills that separate professionals from young adult students at university. If I encounter a student who speaks too softly to be heard (or in this case too softly to be heard through an impediment) then I consider it incumbent on me to encourage this person to remedy this soft-skill deficiency (i.e., they need to speak louder). If we were in a theatre class then the student would be encouraged to "project their voice" and so I would encourage the same. I know that when the student gets into the professional environments she may have to speak to crowds, and this will require a confident audible speaking voice. By encouraging this in the university learning environment, it will not be a stretch for the student when she gets into a professional situation where she really needs it.

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For a long time, this kind of problem would have concerned only the few fully veiled persons, but in times of COVID and everyone wearing masks in a lot of conversational situations, the issue that you cannot (fully) understand what people are saying because their mouth is covered has become more ubiquitous. A cloth (of whatever nature worn for whatever reason) in front of the mouth impedes understandability not only because there is a barrier for the sound waves, but also because lip movements (which might enhance the understandability) are also obscured. If you would not understand a mask wearing person, you probably would not think twice to ask them to speak louder, and I don't see this situation as any different. It is completely appropriate to ask someone to speak lowder because their mouth is covered.

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Let me mention a related issue and a possible solution to this one. I'm very deaf. The nature of it is that, even with a hearing aid, conversation, even in ideal circumstances, is nearly impossible. The level of sound is increased, but not the clarity needed to understand. But I partially lip-read. I've had to ask doctors to remove their masks in consultations, though we step well away from one another. Only then can I understand their instructions.

For many people and in many situations, mask or other face coverings can't or won't be removed. And some people just have learned to speak very softly, for whatever reason.

But, written communication can help. If electronic mediation is possible, students can type questions and responses, perhaps even anonymously.

An instructor in a face-to-face situation can carry a few index cards, perhaps, that can be give to students to write out questions, or whatever.

But there are also microphones that can be employed. There is one kind that feeds directly (bluetooth) into a hearing aid. It can be handed to a student that has a question (face-to-face).

So, old (paper) and new (electronic) tech can be used to mitigate issues, including the one raised by the OP, but also beyond that.


I don't know enough about cultural norms to know whether the request to speak up would be interpreted as insulting. I can't answer the question here directly, but suggest that you need to explore those norms if you really want to keep "connected" to your students.

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    Just to add, I've been in an in-person workshop (pre-COVID) where the presenter had just such a microphone that fed into his hearing aid. The microphone was passed around the participants and it made for a good "prop" so everyone know who to listen to and whose turn it was to speak (as well as allowing the presenter to hear us all comfortably, I presume!). I liked the easing of social graces that this provided.
    – Pam
    Aug 13 at 8:26
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You could try asking in a way that does not single out any particular person, and that puts any "blame" in places that won't make students feel defensive. For example:

Hi students. I'm an old person with old ears. And when I'm up at the front of the class there are air circulation fans up here in the room and in the overhead projector and so on. (Or in my desktop computer in these times of the COOF and zoom meetings and such.) So please try to speak loud enough for me to hear you. If I say "sorry, please say again" I am not trying to be unpleasant. It's really that I cannot hear you. If it happens, please try speaking a little louder.

This is a thing that can cause friction between many cultures. And I'm not sure there will be a one-size-fits-all solution. But blaming yourself and the room is a good strategy.

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Maybe you could talk to the student at the end of the class and tell her the problem. Maybe you could start with discussing the question/idea that she proposed during the class and then lead on to tell her the problem.

I think it would be perfectly fine to tell her, what you wrote above, that you don't have any ideological/religious objection, that you perfectly respect her religious beliefs or norms, but it just muffles the voice, so you have trouble hearing what she is trying to say.

Also, I think if she speaks up now, that means she is confident about herself and feels comfortable in your class and with other colleagues or classmates that are present in your class. So, if she doesn't mind speaking up now then after you tell her to be a bit louder, I don't think it would make her less likely to speak up next time.

Even for people who don't wear hiqab/full face veil, we sometimes have trouble understanding or hearing what they said (for whatever reasons) and we ask them to speak louder or repeat themselves; and that seems very casual and obvious response for a person who is trying to understand them. That also means you are paying attention to the speaker and not ignoring them. When you ask them to be louder or repeat themselves, nobody judges you or questions you why you asked them to speak louder or repeat themselves. I think same thing might happen in this situation as well, unless you ask her to be louder every time she speaks. But, in the latter case, I would discuss the problem with the student directly.

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We don't hear your student, but it may be an issue regardless of wearing a mask, or a veil, which is independent from loudness of a voice: sloppy accentuation and lazy articulation. To my observation, recent confinements and extended periods with lesser in person discussions just worsened the situation for many of us even with «mask off».

So, purchase a bunch of corks e.g., from the arts-and-crafts section of your DIY shop where you get clean ones, which never touched any beverage, nor alcohol:

enter image description here

(picture reference)

Then get all the students to speak with them (e.g., French demonstration, English example) since we all benefit from proper articulation. It is a training seen e.g., among students of music and theology. Just think about preachers who need to be both audible and intelligible in houses of worship till the rear benches and can not rely on the presence of microphone and loudspeaker.

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    As a student, I would leave the class as soon as the corks are on the table.
    – henning
    Aug 12 at 20:28
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    It seems highly inappropriate to ask students to put anything in their mouths, unless you're specifically teaching a vocal training class (even then, I'd probably recommend getting them to supply their own corks instead). Also, this appears to be vocal training, not just something intended to improve the speech you're using it for. As such, it would be a huge distraction from the class and what you're actually trying to teach them (and it also seems like a great way to stop anyone from ever asking a question).
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 12 at 20:34
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    The class wasn't specified in the original question. And what you learn hopefully isn't only for the grades. But I accept your perspective.
    – Buttonwood
    Aug 12 at 20:36
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    I feel like this is a creative, and potentially useful, solution to a completely different problem.
    – MichaelS
    Aug 13 at 0:46
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    @Ben This accumulation of downvotes was not anticipated, since «cork training» was shared among the students in their theater group they organized themself. It never was forced, either. Perhaps the perspective depends on personal background, frame (i.e., as an invite), and society. To those downvoters concerned about the chemical composition of cork, you equally may resort carefully e.g., to a spoon (if you don't nibble at the metal this time) or a softer chopstick; or simply balance a small rigid (piece of a) washed edible fruit from the school canteen between your teeth. Bien.
    – Buttonwood
    Aug 16 at 16:56

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