Expanding American Sign Language’s Scientific Vocabulary

Expanding American Sign Language’s Scientific Vocabulary

Daniel Lundberg, a Deaf chemistry professor at Gallaudet University, estimates that about 80% of chemistry terms have no established sign in American Sign Language, Chemical & Engineering News reports.

When there isn’t a sign for it, people sometimes spell out the word using the signs for its letters, a practice called finger spelling. So during a class about the components of an atom, a deaf student would be lectured on P-R-O-T-O-N-S, N-E-U-T-R-O-N-S, and E-L-E-C-T-R-O-N-S.

In 2016, Mandy Houghton was a science teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, and Harvard University invited her to attend a summer program at the Center for Integrated Quantum Materials (CIQM) to study science research and education.

Like many of her students, Houghton is Deaf. She uses mainly American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. While taking science classes at Harvard that summer, the way the ASL interpreters signed some of the technical terms blew her mind.

When Houghton told hearing students and mentors at CIQM about the lack of signs for scientific terms in ASL, they were shocked. “They didn’t realize how many hurdles I had to be jumping over” to understand the lecture, she says.

Inspired by her experience, Houghton helped launch a project called Quantum Science in ASL to develop ASL signs for quantum physics terms. The project is a collaboration between CIQM and the Learning Center for the Deaf, a non-profit which specializes in ASL development.

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