the linearity of spoken language

The New York Times explores a new development in sign language: new signs for common scientific terms.

a graphic showing 10 human figures making sign motions with their hands and arms, demonstrating some of the new terms for scientific concepts.

Thus far, students of science have relied on cumbersome letter-by-letter word-spelling to communicate terms like “organism” and “photosynthesis.” But now, crowdsourcing projects in both American Sign Language and British Sign Language are creating new signs for these terms.

The article gets particularly interesting when it points out the advantage of employing a visual, tactile language for understanding, rather than terms heard aurally and pictured in the abstract of the mind’s eye:

Making sciences more accessible to the deaf is a priority not just to those with hearing problems, but also to science educators in general. As they look to ease a worldwide shortage of STEM teachers, groups like the Institute of Physics, a global scientific society based in London, are financing projects that make it easier for people with disabilities to enter careers in science.

“We not only want to provide support, we want to raise aspirations, to say to people, ‘you can do this,’ ” said Peter Main, director of education and science at the institute, which helped finance the Scottish sign language project.

Surprisingly, some deaf students say that relying on sign language gives them an advantage over hearing students. 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.

“There’s often a lot of confusion in early years of physics between mass and weight” for hearing students, because the two concepts are so similar, said Mr. Main, who is not deaf. But because mass has no universally accepted sign, interpreters are free to create hand motions that illustrate its meaning specifically in opposition to weight.

For example: “If I wanted to indicate mass, I would probably hold up a balled fist,” said Kate Lacey, an interpreter at George Washington University who often works with science students. “Then, to indicate weight, I’d drop that fist toward the floor.” The implication is that weight represents gravity’s effect on mass, which is about as clear a definition as one is likely to find.

Such elegant personifications of tricky scientific concepts leave some deaf students feeling sorry for those who rely on their ears. “One of my students was telling me recently that she can’t imagine the difficulty that hearing instructors must have in describing concepts through spoken English, because of the linearity of spoken language,” Dr. Braun said.

More at the NYT site. (Thanks, Clio.)

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