Hearing people take for granted our ability to convey scientific terms in conversation, from concepts as simple as weight and mass to chromosomes and covalent bonding. But for people who rely on sign languages, such as American Sign Language and British Sign Language, discussing scientific concepts isn't so simple. But there are many in the scientific and sign linguistics communities who are looking to change that by adding standard scientific signs to their lexicons.
The New York Times has a fascinating article on sign language and scientific communication that offers insight into the difficulty many students and scientists who are deaf and hard of hearing face. In many cases, ASL and BSL have lacked single, standard words for basic scientific terminology, forcing sign language users to use invented signs or to spell out words—a time-consuming and tedious process. And in cases where interpreters didn't understand the terms to begin with, discussions could dissolve into confusion.
Now there's a growing movement to broaden the scientific lexicon of sign languages to improve signed communication about scientific topics. Researchers for the Scottish Sensory Centre's British Sign Language Glossary Project who develop tools for students with visual and auditory impairments added 116 new physics and engineering terms to BSL. ASL lexicographers, meanwhile, are taking a more democratic approach. The University of Washington has launched the ASL-STEM Forum, which looks to crowdsource new signs for scientific terms. Users can submit, comment on, and vote on terms, and as members of the scientific community, as well as folks at historically deaf institutions like Gallaudet University, use them, the hope is that more standard terminology will develop. What's especially interesting is how the visual aspect of sign languages can actually help some students better understand scientific concepts:
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.
You can read more about these projects and how various sign language users have responded to them at the New York Times, and you can also learn several of the signs proposed through the ASL-STEM Forum (the beginnings of which are pictured up top).