Sign language science

7 03 2016

At the Dunbar Science Festival this weekend I had the privilege to work with British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and with the staff the Scottish Sensory Centre at the University of Edinburgh. 

Two student interpreters were tasked with interpreting my show and wanted to speak about the content beforehand. The conversation we had was fascinating. 

BSL is independent of spoken English. As we worked through what I planned to say it became obvious just how much potential there is for confusion in spoken English. 

I was presenting a show about forces, but not the force you’d find in a Star Wars movie, and I certainly wasn’t going to bring the forces from my army to force anyone to watch the show. 

Learning and using the BSL signs, developed at the Scottish Sensory Centre, not only removes the potential for confusion it makes the science easier to understand. 

Their team of scientists and linguists have spent a long time developing a series of BSL signs that don’t reflect spoken English (and all its potential for confusion) the signs work to explain as well as name the concept they refer to. 

Take mass and weight. These concepts are easily confused by users of spoken English. It would be so much easier if we taught everyone the terms using BSL…

Your mass never changes. You can think of mass as the amount of matter in an object. 

Your weight on the other hand will change depending on the amount of gravity you encounter. (On Earth you might weigh 12st, but on the moon you’d weigh about 2st and in deep space you’d be weightless.)

In BSL mass is signed like this. A stationary closed fist. Your mass doesn’t change. 

In BSL gravity is signed by pulling your open hand downwards towards your flat hand. This represents something not just being pulled by gravity but being pulled down towards the centre of the Earth. 


Can you see how much more useful information there is in the signs than the words? Can you guess what the sign for weight is going to be?

To sign weight you take mass (your closed fist) you then take gravity (your open hand held underneath) and you pull both your hands down. Just as the definition of weight is mass being effected by gravity the sign for weight is mass being effected by gravity. 

This is just one example of how the vocabulary they have developed is going to put anyone who knows the signs not just on a level playing field but at a distinct advantage. 

Here’s another great example. In BSL this is the sign for speed and this is the sign for velocity

Speed describes only how fast an object is moving, whereas velocity gives both how fast and in what direction the object is moving. In spoken English these are facts to be memorised and often confused. Using these carefully developed BSL signs this information has been built in. 

To know an object’s velocity you need to know where it started so you can tell its speed and its direction. So the sign for velocity looks like this:

That starting point finger doesn’t just make this a distinct sign from the sign for speed it also conveys the essential scientific difference between speed and velocity. 

Two of the people responsible for developing these signs, Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn, also perform shows using BSL. This year they did a new show themed around geography that introduced us to signs for words like tornado

The presenters use BSL throughout the show. The voices you can hear are from two interpreters who are sitting in the front row speaking what they are signing for those of us unlucky enough not to know BSL. 

If you ever get a chance to see one of their shows I highly recommend it. 




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