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American Science Language
December 5, 2012 11:42 PM   Subscribe

[LydiaCallisFilter] Signing Science
posted by cthuljew (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
My grad school (science) department had a number of deaf folk in it. I remember setting up for my first talk, and the interpreter asked me if I could give her a heads-up right then about any particularly technical terms I was going to use. Despite having seen her and her colleagues work dozens of times, I hadn't thought about that aspect of it ever before: that technical jargon and neologisms and rare constructions might prove challenging in a real-time translation situation. It was a very worthwhile lesson.
posted by knile at 12:28 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yay for Lydia Callas not in danger of being washed away!

And yes, it's great to become more educated about the unique challenges and misconceptions the general public holds about those with hearing impairments. The earlier thread about her sudden leap into the spotlight and how important facial-expressions and body-language in good sign language interpretation was great.

The whole problem of the tediousness of finger-spelling and the interpreters lack of familiarity with terms common in specialized fields certainly seems ripe for collaboration with online tools, and crowd-sourcing solutions and democratic decision-making seems an efficient solution.

Because it is acted out, with everything from facial expressions to speed of motion available as tools to convey meaning, and because it is in many ways less codified than written language, sign language can illustrate difficult scientific principles better than traditional languages can.

Never would have thought of that, interesting how our own experiences predispose us to make assumptions about the experinces of others not exactly like ourselves.

Time, I guess, for my own sheepish story about a rude-awakening I had when I first socialized with the hearing-impaired. Back when windsurfing became a thing I was living on the main floor of a converted three story house. The tenant who lived on the floor below me was an elderly widow, and I was concerned about my music disturbing her. After I'd moved in, I went and knocked on her door to introduce myself and offer to set a stereo level that was tolerable for her. "Oh no dear, don't you worry!" she said, "I like hearing music and noise, it reminds me that I'm alive!" You definitely had to raise your voice for her to hear you, and parties with a couple of dozen people over after the bars closed didn't phase her in the least. Best neighbour ever for a rowdy 23 year old in university.

Anywaze, the inevitable came to be, and she sadly passed away in her sleep at the ripe age of 92. Now, I was going to have to act more within the norms of most of society when it came to noise levels, I thought. Then, I got a brainstorm. The windsurfing club had turned into a bit of a hang-out for a group of hearing-impaired students from the school up the hill from the beach; and I had become friendly with a couple of them, providing some lessons, and taking some of them out water-skiing in my buddy's boat on calm days. "I know," I thought "I'll get them to put a notice up at the school about the suite! That way. I can continue to benefit from neighbours that can't hear me".

Stroke of genius, I figured. My plan went over without a hitch, two suitable friends of our wind-surfing gang were found, they duly moved in, and everyone was happy. Well, that was until the next day, when I was awoken at 9:00 am by what sounded like Ted Nugent battling a Saturn Rocket for sound-pressure-level supremacy. This was death-metal on steroids. Sheer pandemonium.

My spice-rack came off the wall, my bike fell over, and the cat shot up the stairs and cowered on the third floor balcony. Racing down-stairs, expecting to find some kind of out-of-control bacchanalian carousal in full swing, I instead encountered my new neighbours calmly making their breakfast. That was the woe-filled day when I discovered why the the term hearing-impaired is correct, and not deaf. Turns out that many hearing-impaired people love music, they just need to play it insanely loud, and add tons of bass for those with even more acute hearing loss.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:14 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Actually, as I understand it, 'Deaf' is the preferred term, at least for people who have had no or almost no hearing from birth or from a young age, and who speak a sign language as their first language. The idea being that 'impaired' implies something is broken about them, when in fact there's nothing wrong with being Deaf. Many Deaf people, depending on where they are in the world, belong fully to strong and vibrant communities and do not consider themselves to be impaired in any way. 'Hearing impaired' is an appropriate term for, say, people who have been hearing all their lives and always used a spoken language, but who are now getting older and losing that ability. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 2:35 AM on December 6, 2012


For lectures and seminars, would it be easier to just provide some kind of closed captioning, rather than signing?

It looks like this would be much faster than finger-spelling, and both reduce the number of technical signs that would have to be learnt, and overcome problems due to regional differences in sign language.

For direct communication between two people, typing on an iPad/writing on paper would probably be comparably fast, and not require any time to learn.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:51 AM on December 6, 2012


The idea being that 'impaired' implies something is broken about them

Good point. I'm not actually sure, but it was pointed out to me at that time by that group that most of them were not, in fact, "deaf"; as was demonstrated to my chagrin. Mind you, that was 35 years ago, I would be unsurprised to discover that the preferred nomenclature has changed. I'm sure those with more knowledge will enlighten us.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:53 AM on December 6, 2012


So, I've been reading a bit about the terms employed and their history, and it seems that "deaf" and "hard of hearing" did replace "hearing impaired" as the preferred terminology, probably sometime in the 90s.

Hearing-impaired – This term was at one time preferred, largely because it was viewed as politically correct. To declare oneself or another person as deaf or blind, for example, was considered somewhat bold, rude, or impolite. At that time, it was thought better to use the word “impaired” along with “visually,” “hearing,” “mobility,” and so on. “Hearing-impaired” was a well-meaning term that is not now accepted or used by many deaf and hard of hearing people.

Along with this was the development of Deaf Culture, and I was surprised to discover a significant political component to the terms, and how individuals identify themselves. Seems similar to how the expressions Coloured/Afro-american/Black evolved.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 3:21 AM on December 6, 2012


This is fascinating, thanks. I guess some are composite words, some are more like mime (I really like the sign for "chromosome"), and some are a blend of the two. I'd love to learn more about how words like this are constructed.

At the European Juggling Convention in Munich a couple of years back, there was an interpreter at the big, central events who rapidly translated from spoken and sung English, French and German (and maybe Spanish at one point?) into a sign language, presumably DGS although I never confirmed that. She had good stage presence and I'd guess that most of the audience were at least half-watching her whenever anyone was speaking, regardless of what languages they were comfortable with.

I only mention that because, now I think of it, I was watching her a lot and never noticed a hesitation or a change of rhythm when she was translating stuff about juggling equipment, names of techniques, etc, despite this being pretty obscure vocabulary for most people. So I wonder whether this vocabulary already existed in that language?
posted by metaBugs at 3:36 AM on December 6, 2012


This is right up my alley!

From what I understand from my participation in the Deaf community:

"Hearing Impaired" can be somewhat offensive depending on who you're talking to, because it lumps all people with a hearing loss into the same category. That is to say, it flattens out the nature of hearing loss to a disability while ignoring the potential cultural aspects of deafness. Also - as mentioned - many people with a hearing loss do not view their disability as an impairment as much as a lifestyle and cultural aspect of themselves, so the term "impairment" definitely has negative connotations in that respect. However, the term itself tends to be tricky because it's very commonly used, often as a "politically correct" term, and is also used as an actual clinical term. More-over, many people with a hearing loss are not engaged within the Deaf community, so they may use "hearing impaired" to describe themselves, further cementing the idea that it's perfectly neutral in tone. That being said, while it's rare that any Deaf person will be shocked and appalled if you use the term with them given how common it is, they still do have concerns about it - I know a friend who once wrote a letter to a television channel (the exact channel name eludes me at this point) a number of years ago to protest their usage of the term hearing impaired in their announcements over programs being closed captioned, and she successfully got it changed to "closed captioned for the hard of hearing and deaf" as opposed to "closed captioned for the hearing impaired."

To clarify further on terminology, it is important to make the distinction between capital-D "Deaf" and "deaf". While the latter "deaf" refers simply to the loss of hearing, the former, "Deaf" refers to a person's engagement within the Deaf community. Thus, a person who is not deaf can still be Deaf (interpreters are often astounding examples of this) by nature of their involvement within the community. Once again, the terms can be flexible depending on who you ask. The term I offer is a more welcoming open-umbrella term that takes anyone engaged within the community under its wings, but others may subscribe to a stricter model. That is, you might have to be a native signer (which still doesn't exclude you if you're hearing, for instance, if you're the hearing child of deaf parents), or base their criterion on how well someone adheres to the shared experience and struggles of having a hearing loss.

When we move past deafness, however, things get a bit muddier. The culture around hearing loss tends to be much less defined than that of deafness for a number of reasons, most of which center around the fact that people with hearing losses (i.e. mild-moderate hearing losses rather profound hearing losses) tend to take a more medical view of their disability than Deaf people. Contributing factors: hearing losses are more common to develop over time (through aging or environmental factors) resulting in a stronger mental association with the hearing community than the Deaf community since that's where the person "started", hearing losses are more easily compensated for by adaptive technology which often encourages the medical view of disability, and hearing losses often strike older people, who are less adaptive to joining an entirely new community. As a result, you're likely to find that people with hearing losses are a lot less strict about terminology. While I would say that "hearing loss" would be the appropriate term in this situation, you'd certainly find it rare for someone to have a hearing loss (assuming that they're not Deaf) to take offense to the term "hearing impaired", which is where a lot of the trouble and confusion arises. Of course, this is not to imply that they are less sensitive or have a flawed model of their hearing loss in any way - they just don't view it in the same way as someone who grew up Deaf and who has had the community to bond with a community does.


And to comment on James Scott-Brown's comment/questions, I'm actually in that situation! As a person with a severe-to-profound bilaterial hearing loss but fluent in ASL currently in my third year of a science degree with a writing minor, I have access to both a captionist and an interpreter as part of my accommodations at my University. Some comments off the top of my head on this:

1) English education can be very poor if you're deaf; I think the often quoted statistic here is that the average deaf high-school graduate has a grade four reading level. Especially if you're signing, it means having to learn two different languages, as well. While this is not the case for me, because I grew up in the hearing world and integrated into the Deaf world later on with ASL as my second language, many deaf/Deaf people will prefer ASL as their first language. Think of it as being an ESL student having to keep up with the speed of captioning - a very difficult feat indeed.

2) Captioning provides very limited context on tone and other necessities of spoken language. Especially for my writing classes, I cannot stand having a captionist transcribe, say, my instructor reading out a poem - all the contextual cues from body language, tone and emotion are completely flattened, which is quite detrimental to understanding.

3) Captioning is very rigid and fixed in position. If you have a course that has any semblance of group-work where you have to move around, it's much easier and much less awkward having an interpreter there. Another reason why - you can actually participate. A captionist tends to mark you as an outsider in group conversations because not only are you not getting the flow of the conversation from the contextual cues, but you're sort of just stuck there staring at a screen instead of looking and being engaged in terms of body language with your peers.

4) ASL is much faster to keep up. On average, I'd say my captionist lags maybe three sentences behind, while my interpreter is at most, a sentence behind, and often just pausing to anticipate what the lecturer is saying. Very crucial if your class is in a more interactive format with questions being asked, because it means that you don't miss the opportunity to ask questions and you don't miss the context of the other students' questions.

5) Honestly, as a science major, the difficulties in terminology are not that hard to get over. My interpreter is provided with one hour of preparation time per hour of lecture as by industry standards, and that gives her time to learn all of the terminology and propose signs to me prior to class if she feels that they are too long to fingerspell. Otherwise, fingerspelling (especially if you're fully fluent) is actually really fast because you're only looking for the shape of letters, and if it gets too tedious, it's not difficult to just quickly interject "Hey for that term use shakes hand with w" or something to take some load off the interpreter's pace.

In terms of communicating between people, however, writing on paper - or even on an iPad is a very, very poor substitute for conversation. Not only does it disrupt the natural flow of conversation and strip tone/body language/etc (I think someone said that body language was like, 60, 80% of communication, in fact?), but it's exceedingly slow, and only serves to heighten your place as someone "disabled", which causes power and dominance issues. It's like they're deigning to lower their communication skills down to the most rudimentary level to convey points to me. It's very pretentious and frustrates me, and I only use it as a very last resort because of the power imbalance - even struggling to lipread my way through a conversation with fourteen "can you repeat that"s per sentence is far superior because at least I can put on a pretense of "hey, we're both equally lost and frustrated here, isn't that funny, hahaha" and connect that way.


I hope that is comprehensible. It is 6:40 AM where I am because I've been up all night cramming for an exam and this is supposed to be my study break oh my god I should get to bed before dawn breaks or else I won't sleep at all with the sun right in my face.
posted by Conspire at 3:39 AM on December 6, 2012 [16 favorites]


Oh, and I should mention: Lydia Callis is a huge hero for both me and my interpreter. We sometimes squeal together before class starts over her exploits. Beautifully expressive signing too, I would not miss a thing with her.
posted by Conspire at 3:42 AM on December 6, 2012


Thanks Conspire, flagged as fantastic.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 3:53 AM on December 6, 2012


Oh, and last comment before I go to sleep, promise.

Looking at the link fully now and looking at Lydia's examples for science terminology, I notice that some of the signs are EXACTLY what my interpreter and I use. I don't think it's because the terminology spreads, because we made them up ourselves, but because of the unique way you tend to adapt signs in ASL resulting in convergent evolution of signs.

For instance, her sign for "ORGANISM" uses two "O" hand-shapes going from the top of her torso to the bottom. This is also the same movement that we use in general for physical entities in ASL - for instance, "BODY" uses the same movement with a "B" handshape, "HUMAN" with an "H" handshape, so it seems 100% intuitive that you would use "O" for ORGANISM.

Similarly, she re-purposes signs from casual language as scientific language - this works because of the context. That is, her sign for WEIGHT might mean a person weighing something if you were talking outside of a scientific sphere, but because she uses WEIGHT within a science class, it's automatically understood that you are referring to the scientific definition of WEIGHT and not the popular definition. It's not just if the sign shares the same word either - for instance, for her sign for ADHESION, she uses a sign that refers to something like "STICK TO". Word amalgamations are common too - her sign for microbiology is simply MICRO then BIOLOGY.

So if Lydia were my interpreter, and she was interpreting my biology class and I had no discussion with her previously, I would probably still understand every bit of terminology she throws at me even if she doesn't explain them as she goes along just because of these features of ASL. The same would probably go for any interpreter. Really interesting stuff.
posted by Conspire at 3:54 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


For a while I was studying Math and ASL at the same time (the Math deeply, the ASL superficially), and I used to wonder how ASL copes (or could cope) with advanced math language.

First, there is some very jargon-heavy language (which isn't unique to math). For example, the Open Mapping Theorem:
If X and Y are Banach spaces and A : X → Y is a surjective continuous linear operator, then A is an open map.
I'd imagined [first letter hand shape + categorically appropriate hand motion], like Conspire describes for "organism". But I would have loved to know what the motions were. Like, does "Integral" reflect the shape of the integral symbol (∫), or does it reflect the "cutting up and adding together" process underlying it. (Like many non-Deaf, I think I over-emphasize how much ASL resembles mime.)

Second, I wonder how it would deal with symbol-heavy equations, like Maxwell's eq'ns, or Stokes' theorem. The thing is, even though you can read these out in English, that's not very meaningful to me. I understand them symbolically, and best understand them by looking at them printed on a page or a blackboard. I don't know if that's just me, or if Deaf people would also prefer the written symbolic form to an ASL reading.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:29 PM on December 6, 2012


The linguistic background to understand in benito.strauss' question is that since traditionally, most professional fields have not been very receptive to accommodating deaf people, jargon and specialized language is not a particularly developed area of ASL. Which is to say, language develops out of necessity, and in the past, there has really been almost no need for these specialized signs. Thus, we are entering completely new territory as we see more and more deaf people become scientists and mathematicians and lawyers and so forth - they require signs to express concepts that previously did not exist in the natural scope of the language. However, just like any other language, there is no central authority to dictate what signs we use for what words as the need arises, and so, the language has to evolve naturally to accommodate the new demands imposed upon it. As with any language, these terms tend to be created in small bubbles of native speakers/signers, and then spread to become lexicon as the sign becomes more and more popular, with some signs ultimately becoming accepted and integrated in to the language. What makes ASL particularly interesting as an example of evolution of language is that one, it's happening right NOW given the increased opportunities for the deaf, so you can witness it as it happens, and two, the demand is unprecedented - while English may be subject to demands for just a few new words a year, ASL has suddenly been hit by a surge of possibly even tens of thousands of specialized words that all demand some way of representation.

That being said, while this phenomenon is common to any language subject to new demands, ASL has some key attributes that really make this evolution of language much different from spoken languages, and indeed, extremely interesting to behold.


Firstly, the coinage of new words is highly intuitive and accessible to almost anyone in the language. Unlike English, where it can be very difficult to come up with new phonetic ways to express new concepts, ASL has a huge variety of tools for anyone seeking to coin a new word: transforming existing words, merging words together, even changing the way or context in which words are signed produce new signs completely. I've mentioned how we see a lot of convergent evolution in signs coined in completely different places, and this has to do with how ASL is built upon solid concepts and patterns that can be easily taken advantage of to produce new expressions.

ORGANISM is one example, but another example would be alternative way of signing PHOTOSYNTHESIS, which Lydia proposes as "SUNSHINE MAKE". My way of signing it is "SUN-BECOME-SUGAR", and this is a very interesting cascade of transformations because of the nature of the three signs. The sign for SUN proceeds in a rotating fashion similar to the sign BECOME which has the same handshape as the sign SUGAR. Thus, the cascade of words becomes one smooth word in itself despite being three separate concepts initially - the rotation of the sun transforms into a palm facing inwards as it "blossoms out", and then comes down to the chin to "become" sugar.


Secondly, the majority of words that require signs are abstract concepts. benito.strauss mentioned how he over-emphasizes how much ASL resembles mime, and this is largely true for physical entities - the words for things that firmly rooted in the natural world will be quite representative - HOUSE is drawing a roof and box, MONKEY is scratching under your arms, PHONE is miming picking up a phone, and so forth. The hidden side of ASL that is not quite as accessible to the layperson not learned in the language is how extraordinarily expressive ASL can be with abstract ideas. For instance, the sign for NOW (which, by the way, I believe was used by Lydia and mocked on the internet as a "Double Yoda" or something), conveys both a sense of urgency and grounded-ness in the short, curt way it pulls down to a halt, as if it were hitting an invisible barrier. Similarly, the sign for PROFESSIONAL implies tones of "being on the right path", "straight", "moving forward". ASL can take this expressiveness to an extreme with its vast array of modifiers based upon body language. It is a huge misconception when people think that ASL is only strong at expressing physical concepts rooted in the real world - ASL has an incredible amount of expressive power for the abstract.

To give you an example, here's a sign that my friends and I use sometimes - it's the word "FUN", but instead of using the "h" handshape, we fingerspell "F-U-N" in the position at the nose in a circular manner while rolling our heads slightly along with the circular motion of our hand, with a goofy faked smile and a slight roll of the eyes. The best translation of this sign that I can give you is in the form of a story: "suppose that you are a prodigious five year old kid genius whose parents have gone out for the evening. The bubbly, braced babysitter with braided hair comes in, a not-so-bright but overly enthusiastic, holding a board-game clearly designed for toddlers, and goes 'Yay! We are going to have so much fun tonight!' You echo "Yes, fun" in a tone that both mocks her but signifies defeat because you realize that you are just a kid and you're expected to conform to your role, and nothing you say will stop her from making you have fun - the signed word represents the way in which both the babysitter and you say 'fun', while recognizing their respective motivations, probably biased more towards one way or another depending on the degree of your smile versus your eye roll." That concept is condensed into the course of maybe two seconds.

An example more concretely rooted in the professional world would be alternative signs for "ABSOLUTE ZERO". The way Lydia signs it is that she signs "0 K" to represent "0 Kelvin", but there are ways to sign it that are less strictly adherent to language conventions. The base sign in this case is "ZERO", and there are two ways you could potentially modify it - either showing that the ZERO is exceedingly cold, which would involve you gritting your teeth together and shaking the zero very rapidly before grinding it to an immediate halt (and the rapidness and halt are very important, because you want to show that it's not just cold, but very, very cold), OR you could interpret the "ABSOLUTE" as a modifier in itself and sign the ZERO as if it were ABSOLUTE - that is, move the ZERO forwards to a quick halt with a neutral, confident expression and a strong pose.


Thirdly, not every word in the language needs a sign because ASL has a way "out" to express ANY word in English through the means of fingerspelling. While often viewed as slow, at higher levels of language proficiency, fingerspelling becomes an incredibly useful tool because you are only looking for the shape of the words rather than the actual handshapes individually, allowing you skip and gloss over handshapes providing that you provide the important points. In fact, there are a number of signs that are just fingerspelled words (although any examples elude me at this point), because they're just so short.


So while I cannot answer your first question directly because I am not a math major with an in-depth understanding of the complex mathematics language used, these three attributes of ASL explain how new signs can potentially arise in these fields. The first attribute allows us to create new signs by merging and adapting initial concepts; the second attribute allows us to create new signs by drawing upon the abstract as represented by the real world human body OR by using abstract modifiers to grant new meaning to existing signs; and the third is a "fail-safe" - if in the very unlikely circumstance that one cannot come up with a sign (hard given the visual creativity of many deaf people!), you can just fall back on fingerspelling.

Bonus: while my words shouldn't carry any weight because, once again, I am not a math major, I can instantly see that a proposed sign for "INTEGRATE" would be to adapt "ADD" but do the sign in a sigmondal shape (that is, start with one hand lower than the other, and draw an "S" in the air as you're bringing them together). Not only does this represent the shape of the integral, but it also abstractly conveys that the hands are moving along the curve and "collecting" the curve together in a central point where they're added, which is quite expressive of integration.


As for your second question, I would argue that expressing symbol-heavy equations in any transient (i.e. non-written) language is difficult. I mean, can you imagine trying to read out and convey Maxwell's equation as its symbols to someone? I imagine that they would forget the first symbol by the time you read out the sixth. You could make the argument that it's potentially easier to express equations in ASL due to the existence of classifers allowing us to "draw out" in the air, but at that stage, I'd just go "screw it" and write it on the blackboard. Just as you use the word "Maxwell's Equation" instead of saying the components of the equation every single time, it's not necessary to reference the equation in entirety in every instance of communication - in this circumstance, there would be a stand-in word in ASL for the equation as opposed to drawing out the equation every time for sure.


Whew. That was long. Sorry. I just love ASL so, so much and I never get much of a chance to analyze my own language this exhaustively. -hugs it-
posted by Conspire at 5:55 PM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for that great response, Conspire. Inside info like yours is why I love Metafilter. I love the expressiveness and inventiveness of ASL too.

I looked around a little for some math-specific signs. It seems like there's a generic math-word gesture of "cross both hands in signing space" for different subject areas. And I found a discussion of how to do "integral" here. As of 2006 it's either I-sign moved along an integral sign, shaky-I, or some nonce sign. It'll be interesting to see if/how it gets formalized.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:17 PM on December 6, 2012


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