Imagine you’re sitting in a high school biology class or a college chemistry lab. The professor is giving a heated lecture using a whole host of long, difficult words. But every time she says “heterogeneous mixture” or “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” she spells out the entire term one letter at a time. That’s what life is like for deaf students and professionals in the sciences. But instead of a two hour class lasting for four hours, interpreters stand at the front of the classroom, signing as fast as they can.
This endless scientific spelling bee is the result of a lack of technical vocabulary in American and international Sign Languages. In a recent New York Times article, Matthew Schwerin, a professional physicist working for the Food and Drug Administration, describes his experience as a deaf physics student: “For the majority of scientific terms [my interpreter and I would] try to find a correct sign for the term, and if nothing was pre-existing, we would come up with a sign that was agreeable with both parties.” This method also came with what Schwerin calls, “a lot of finger-spelling and a lot of improvisation.”
So, not only was Schwerin learning new vocabulary every day, he had to invent a language in order to use it. Sounds like a tall order for an established scientist let alone a student, but things are changing in the deaf scientific community. Thanks to the magic of online video the internet is teeming with newly invented signs, and the language is growing in ways it never has before. But how do you condense this mass of communication into a standardized form that everyone can use? It might take something like. . . a dictionary.
(Did you know that American Sign Language is not related to English? Learn the whole story.)
Students and professionals in the deaf community throughout North America are collaborating on the ASL-STEM Forum (American Sign Language – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), a wiki-style forum for sharing newborn scientific and technical signs. The ASL-STEM began as a research venture of the University of Washington, and the architects of the site are taking a refreshingly organic approach to its development.
“Language use and evolution cannot be directed by the few, no matter their expertise,” says the ASL-STEM mission statement. “Instead, languages change because their users choose to change them.” The statement goes on to describe the forum as “an attempt to connect you, all of the ASL users of North America, together so that you can, of your own accord, introduce the necessary vocabulary to your language.”
With this mindset, the ASL-STEM gives ownership of its vocabulary directly to those who use it, making the growth of scientific vocabulary in Sign Language a vibrant illustration of a living language.
Do you think dictionaries for the hearing have something to learn from this example?
What sign would you add to ASL-STEM?