Sign language standardised for astronomical terms

Scottish glossary breaks down communication barriers

October 10, 2013

Astrophysics is among the subjects being made more accessible to deaf students through the British Science Language Glossary.

The glossary is designed to help overcome communication barriers in science and mathematics by creating signs for terms that previously had no sign language equivalent and standardising their use.

“Before the glossary, teachers and interpreters spent a lot of time trying to explain some of these very technical terms, and it’s often too time- consuming to fingerspell. Many words just couldn’t be translated,” said Gary Quinn, a deaf linguist and teaching fellow at Heriot-Watt University.

The signs, being developed through the Scottish Sensory Centre at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, include “Saturn”, demonstrated by the rings around the planet, and “Mars”, which incorporates the fact that the planet is orbited by two moons.

The glossary team, including Dr Quinn and Audrey Cameron, a deaf chemist and schoolteacher, compiled the latest 75 astronomy terms by working with a group of deaf scientists and linguists. They will be added to the 850 signs across physics, biology, chemistry and maths compiled since 2007.

Unlike previous standardisation efforts, the project aims to find a sign related to the meaning of the concept, while respecting the principles of sign linguistics.

“We discussed science-related vocabulary and how the concepts relating to these words could be presented visually,” Dr Quinn said.

While some were quite straightforward, more abstract or theoretical terms proved more of a challenge, he added, citing as an example the signs for “mass”, “density” and “gravity”, which are all based on the same hand shape in an effort to reflect their relationship in nature.

The team is running interactive shows to raise awareness of the glossary, including a “BSL science soiree” at the Manchester Science Festival on 2 November. The astronomical terms will also be used by the Royal Observatory as part of its work to engage the deaf community in demonstrations later this month.

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