Science and Sign Language

What do you do if you want to discuss scientific matters such as photosynthesis or magnetism in sign language?

Well, most users of British Sign Language have to spell out the such words using finger spelling, which is quite cumbersome and time consuming. Recently however, the Scottish Sensory Centre at Edinburgh University‘s School of Education started to develop a collection of new signs for mathematical and scientific terms which will not only be more convenient, but will also help students to understand the scientific concepts with gestures which make intuitive sense.

According to an article in The Herald, the new signs are being developed by a BSL expert from the School of Education with help from teachers and others who help deaf students, and also from deaf scientists at the University of Durham.

4 thoughts on “Science and Sign Language

  1. This is very interesting. I have studied ASL (American Sign Language). And, while I am not good enough to interpret, I have deaf friends and have joined them at presentations and discussions. At these events I have seen the difficulty the interpreters have in keeping up and the fact that so many of the details get — quite literally — lost in the translation. I know that when time permits, interpreters here try to meet with the deaf audience members and work out signs for technical jargon in advance, but this is not always practical, because of timing issues or of the unpredictability of the content.

    This discussion leads me to wonder on another line about the British and American sign systems. First, let me be clear that I do not think that American things are superior, nor that British things are inferior. (For example, I think that driving on the left makes more sense because of right eye dominance and the fact that, based on my own very limited experience, it just feels more natural — and I hope that if global regularity is ever achieved on this front, your sytem will be the one that prevails.) But I will confess that I have always thought the British Sign Language system was unnecessarily cumbersome, especially with its two-handed fingerspelling, which must be a greater slow-down during a presentation than at the American events I have observed.

    It also strikes me that most of the world uses a similar type of sign language (and I readily acknowledge that what I think of as “American” Sign Language is really a slight modification of French). I have been able to converse with deaf people in Italy, and I had little trouble understanding a video of an Arabic signer. Indeed, an American deaf person can travel much of the world and be understood in the deaf community, and yet is lost when traveling in the U.K., where the verbal and written language is (almost) identical.

    So, my question boils down to: Is there, or has there been, in the BSL community a discussion about switching the UK to the ASL/Continental Europe model? Or even on a smaller scale, has there been discussion about replacing the two-handed fingerspelling with the one-handed system used elsewhere?

    And if not, it is simply because of inertia? Or are there arguments of which I am unaware that two-handed fingerspelling is advantageous, or that the British system has some benefits that make it worth keeping in spite of its geographic isolation?

    — Joe / Atlanta / USA

  2. That’s quite interesting. I wonder if the same is being done for American Sign Language (ASL). My mother is a Physics professor and one of her deaf students had an interpreter (who had no background in physics, but learned as they went along). The two came up with their own signs for all the science and math terms.

  3. Interesting. The question would be: would there be any cooperation between the ASL and BSL communities in order to “generlize” the signs used for scientific terms? I believe it is a mess already with 2 sign languages!

  4. SLs are natural languages and are subject to the same processes of change as spoken languages. When a community wants to discuss topics they did not discuss before, they will spontaneously develop new lexical items for these new concepts. Through borrowing, coining new words/signs, extending the meaning of signs already in use. In the initial phase of the new concept, there will be several lexical items for it. However, as the concept becomes discussed more regularly, the lexeme for it will stabilize; in SL like in spoken language. Matter of time. No language planning (of hearing people 😉 ) needed to interfere with the process…

    As for the fingerspelling matter: this is a marginal process in SLs, mainly used in contact situations (e.g. interpretation). Once you are used to one system, it is hard to get used to another one. So, I don’t think the BSL community would feel like switching 🙂 (though it would ofcourse be interesting to see if there actually is a difference in speed)

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