Ending The Communication Breakdown For Signing Scientific Terms

Dec. 12, 2012

I think sign language is one of the most beautiful languages. It's a dance of the hands and fingers executed with speed and panache. It partners with the face and body to communicate emotion. I've always been fascinated by it and even took a few American Sign Language classes in college. But like the Spanish and French classes that I also took, I'm certainly no master. I can query directions to the restroom and order a beer in all three, and that's about it.

Aside from the fact that I failed miserably at learning other languages, I don't have many barriers in communication. But an article by The New York Times made me realize how much I take for granted.

"Imagine trying to learn biology without ever using the word “organism.” Or studying to become a botanist when the only way of referring to photosynthesis is to spell the word out, letter by painstaking letter.

"For deaf students, this game of scientific Password has long been the daily classroom and laboratory experience. Words like “organism” and “photosynthesis” — to say nothing of more obscure and harder-to-spell terms — have no single widely accepted equivalent in sign language. This means that deaf students and their teachers and interpreters must improvise, making it that much harder for the students to excel in science and pursue careers in it."

Enter crowdsourcing and specifically the Scottish Sensory Centre’s British Sign Language Glossary Project, which added 116 new signs for physics and engineering terms.

Fueled by research culled from deaf science workers, the project aims to give deaf students a more-even playing field. It will also benefit career scientists who are stymied by the communication breakdown that occurs when there are no signs for words being spoken.

Interestingly, the article notes that some deaf students say that relying on sign language gives them an advantage over hearing students.

For example: “If I wanted to indicate mass, I would probably hold up a balled fist,” said Kate Lacey, an interpreter at George Washington University who often works with science students. “Then, to indicate weight, I’d drop that fist toward the floor.” The implication is that weight represents gravity’s effect on mass, which is about as clear a definition as one is likely to find.

I must say, that does make it much easier to understand. Here's to the list of scientific words growing and to me learning them so I can not only order a beer, but impress my friends with my scientific prowess.

Read the entire New York Times article.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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