Language planning:
British Sign Language
Science Signs
Edinburgh University
Tuesday 4th March 2008
Rachel O’Neill
Lecturer in Deaf Education at Edinburgh
BSL Science Signs Project Manager
Gary Quinn
Project Officer at Heriot-Watt University
Linguistic adviser for the BSL Science Signs
Some facts about British Sign Language (BSL)
BSL is not a new language
It was first described and named around 1980
Not the same as English
More deaf children are now in mainstream schools
Residential and mainstreamed schools
95% deaf children have hearing parents
Post-mainstreamed deaf children
‘German’ teaching method
Pre-1880 – sign language used
Post-1880 – oral methods took over
Braidwood set up the UK’s first deaf school: Edinburgh 1760
Regional Variation
Regional variation developed
BSL transmitted horizontally from Deaf children of Deaf families
to deaf children from hearing families
Will this increase in variation continue now?
Cochlear Implants
Advanced hearing aids
Is it the answer to communications problems?
Teacher of Deaf
Language levels in BSL
Communication Support Workers (CSWs)
Specific subject signs
Level of communication skill
BSL vocabulary in technical fields
BSL hasn’t developed many scientific
technical terms
Disabled Students Allowance became
available - university access
Deaf printers / Deaf dental technicians
College project to collect technical signs
Resources for CSW training
BSL’s productive lexicon
Visual features of the situation
Visual metaphors
Collection of signs in a sequence
May be adopted more widely
Gradually become simplified
Parts of it reduced
Moved to more neutral space
E.g. Rome, Satellite, Space-shuttle, fax
E.g. a non-terminating decimal
Aims of glossary project
Create 250 science signs
Split into three difference areas–
New signs
Definitions in full BSL
Fingerspelling patterns
Glossary project support
Funded by the Scottish Government
£25,000 for one year
Two members from Scottish Sensory
Centre (SSC)
SSC funded by the Scottish Government
SSC – CPD for teachers of deaf children
and teachers of visually impaired children
First on the web?
The project was not the first of its kind to
be online
Dundee and Wolverhampton
Not exactly aimed at intermediate level
Dundee aimed at school students
Wolverhampton aimed to support deaf students at
university level
Dundee’s website
A number of initialised signs based on fingerspelling
The deaf learner has to lipread to distinguish these
initialised signs
E.g. Exothermic and Endothermic (Dundee)
Difficult for deaf children
Given English words pretending to be BSL
Don’t show the productive features of the BSL
Subject to subject = more and more initialised
English influenced vocabulary
Wolverhampton’s website
Quite good and useful for us
No definitions in BSL
Native BSL users were involved
Didn’t have improved signs to highlight the
difference between them
English influences the BSL lexicon, e.g. DESIGNPERSON parallels -er designer, driver, learner
Method is not discussed in detail on their
Who was involved and why?
Gerry Hughes: (BA in Maths): involved in the
mathematics project and a school teacher of deaf
Dr Audrey Cameron (PhD in Chemistry): a school
teacher of deaf children;
John Denerley: (BSc Social work) Owner of a wildlife
Mary Frances Dolan (BA in Biology): BSL & a school
teacher of deaf children;
Dr Mike Fox (PhD in Chemistry): a chemistry
Who was involved and why?
Derek Roger (BA in Biology): a school teacher in
London, originally from Scotland;
Claire Leiper (BA in Biology and English): a freelance
John Brownlie (BA in Physics): a multimedia specialist
working with a Deaf organisation;
Dr Colin Donnell (PhD in Physics): an astronomy
Eileen Burns (BA in Physics): a school teacher of deaf
Original plan
Agreed that Chemistry group lead and
influence the others.
Suggested to start from definition and from
that get to new signs.
Decided to keep draft film of every sign
and record reasons for our ideas.
Suggested to put new signs on the bulletin
Research method
First stage – collect English terms needed for science in school
Second stage – collect and list existing signs.
Third stage – group to evaluate the existing signs
Fourth stage – group to discuss definitions of scientific concepts
and use features of BSL to devise new BSL terms. Draft sign on web
for group to evaluate.
Fifth stage - create a definition in BSL and film it; use text books
and the group’s science expertise.
Sixth stage – put the definition and sign on the internet.
Seventh stage – translate the definitions into English.
Issues raised
Some new signs developed quickly by informal subgroup
while filming definitions
Producing definitions difficult - how detailed? Follow a
Standardisation is not necessarily good
Bilingual access to the online dictionary – A to Z and
New signs came up in many definitions – allows deaf
children to build up a concept network
Issues raised
Interesting to see the morphology and sign roots e.g. chemical
reaction etc.
Another sign family – MASS, WEIGHT, DENSITY
A lot of debate over the sign to use and we changed our minds e.g.
HABITAT – 2:1 mapping or 1:1 mapping?
How will the project be received by teachers and children?
How do other minority languages develop technical vocabulary?
In summary…
Overall, we found that English was a very strong
Unique features of this project – largely Deaf
only team using BSL
The team have achieved their target amount of
signs after sensitive, careful agreement
We are now engaged in evaluating the project
by interviewing 25 deaf young people and
teachers of deaf children.
…which may help us plan for the next project.
Thank you

Language planning - University of Edinburgh