Expanding the Sign Language Lexicon for Science

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Regardless of the state of the law, people with disabilities have been finding their own way in the able-bodied world for some time. Here's a case of how technology is addressing an old challenge for deaf people. 

In a highly technical field where terminology and vocabulary are highly specialized, how do you communicate efficiently? Sign language has had some real difficulty keeping up with the explosion of technical language in scientific fields.

For instance, this year, one of those resources, the Scottish Sensory Centre’s British Sign Language Glossary Project, added 116 new signs for physics and engineering terms, including signs for 'light-year,' 'mass,' and 'x-ray.'

Universities that serve the deaf have been dealing with this problem for years using social media and collaborative platforms to keep language a resource for experts and students who want to learn.

Caroline Solomon is one the researchers who is trying to solve these problems. Solomon is a professor of biology at Gallaudet University, and she helped to develop a forum that allows professors and students to interact and develop signs for various scientific terms. 

"It's really fascinating to see the signs that have been posted on the forum, for example, the word 'protein,'" Solomon says. "It's a very common word in science, in biology and chemistry, and the signs that have been posted on the forum are very connected to the context." There is one sign for protein in the context of food, one sign in the context of chemistry, and so forth, so that many things which have only one word in English actually have many different signs.  


Much of classic American Sign Language is simply not descriptive enough for the needs of science. "We've been using the sign 'animal' to represent 'organism,' and that's not actually a fair representation," she explains. Since the term 'organism' encompasses all living things, including plants as well as animals, a new sign was needed. And through the forum, one was developed. 

The most exciting thing about Solomon's work, is that the forum allows us to watch the evolution of language, in real time. "It is very exciting," she says. "There's a lot of interesting discussion among our faculty and our students as well."