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Learning the lingo: How deaf scientists create new technical terminology in British Sign Language


Learning the lingo: How deaf scientists create new technical terminology in British Sign Language


Rachel O’Neill, School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, UK

Gary Quinn, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK

Audrey Cameron, School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, UK

Deaf students at school often do not use British Sign Language (BSL) because specialist teachers rarely have fluency in the language, and old views about using only speech with deaf children still dominate. In some local authorities a real choice is offered about communication approaches for deaf children, and increasingly deaf children with hearing aids and cochlear implants are using spoken English and BSL, or Sign Supported English (SSE). That is, if children are exposed to both English and BSL, they can choose the language and communication mode that suits the context. BSL is a language with its own grammar structures that are very different to English, whereas SSE follows English word order with clear visible pronunciation of speech, taking vocabulary from BSL.

Since 2007 the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC), based in the School of Education and Sports at the University of Edinburgh, has been developing a project to support deaf children and their teachers by collecting and creating specialist BSL signs for scientific and mathematical concepts. The BSL Glossary project has focused so far on STEM subjects (SSC, 2019a). There are currently 1,500 signs and definitions for technical terms in biology, astronomy, physics, geography, chemistry and mathematics. The signs have been developed by a team of 24 deaf scientists, mathematicians and linguists fluent in BSL who have in-depth subject-specific knowledge. The aim is to develop signs, definitions and laboratory clips to illustrate the use of the BSL sign in a scientific discussion or experiment. The website had 151,000 hits over the last year and the associated app, BSL Education, had 6,420 downloads over the last 12 months (SSC, 2018). We know that both resources are used by deaf students, their teachers, and BSL / English interpreters and support workers in education. In addition, wider groups use the Glossary too: teachers of hearing children such as Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) science students, deaf scientists working with interpreters, and people working on TV translating scientific or mathematical programmes. A recent addition has been interactive scientific images which take the user to the BSL sign for each label (SSC, 2019b).

The process of collecting and creating the technical signs is deaf-led, unlike earlier attempts by teachers which tried to make BSL more like English (Day, 2000). Audrey Cameron is a deaf BSL user who leads the Chemistry pathway on the School of Education’s PGDE, which involves training hearing students how to teach chemistry for the Scottish education system. Audrey works in class and on placement visits with BSL / English interpreters. Her role has been crucial in the Glossary project in coordinating the intensive sign collection and creating workshops. The project has raised money for particular projects. Working closely with Gary Quinn, a BSL sign linguist from Heriot-Watt University, and Rachel O’Neill, a lecturer in deaf education at the University of Edinburgh, Audrey uses contacts from the deaf BSL-using community in the UK to locate science graduates and scientists who are fluent in BSL. Since 1992, the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) in the UK has enabled deaf BSL users to access university in much greater numbers; before that time BSL users were discouraged from progressing to higher education. Since the advent of DSA, there are now many deaf BSL users who have science degrees, sometimes working as scientists or as teachers or in science-related jobs.

Figure 1. Still from the video of the sign for gas exchange, from the Scottish Sensory Centre

A typical collection workshop will have eight members, including Gary Quinn as the BSL linguist who explains the process of collecting existing signs from specialists who sign about science concepts, and of creating signs for concepts where none are currently in use. Gary’s input includes discussion of the fact that languages rarely map one to one: in one language there may be two terms and in another language one term for the same or closely related ideas.

Group members have been briefed in advance of the scientific terms in English and concepts we want to include in the Glossary based around a particular subject area. Members of the group compare existing online BSL signs, and also check the meaning of terms before the workshop. We discuss the concepts in BSL, often at a micro level, and make sure the science is clear. For some workshops we invite an illustrator, a hearing science educator or science communicator, which often aids the process.

When the group comes to a decision about a newly created sign or chooses to adopt an already established but lesser known sign, we first film it in draft. The draft signs are then put up on a closed Facebook site so that a wider group of fluent BSL users, mostly deaf, can comment on our work. Feedback on the draft signs is collated from this group and the workshop members over the next few weeks. There is then some discussion in BSL, for example via a Zoom meeting, to clarify or improve the draft signs. Sometimes group members try them out on the target audience, such as deaf children.

The revised signs are then filmed and a definition is added. We try to base the definition on the conceptual discussions from the workshop, rather than just translating from an English print textbook. The definitions often include other technical BSL terms. An example is the sign for DIABETES.

For many of the signs we also produce a laboratory video or a clip of deaf BSL users signing about a group of scientific concepts in BSL, incorporating the new terms and actually teaching in the way an encyclopaedia does. An example is this clip about different products of volcanoes. When you view this, pay attention to how the camera spends a long time focusing on what things look like. This is an aspect of deaf pedagogy which deaf teachers bring to the creation of educational materials, though currently there are few qualified deaf science teachers (O’Neill, 2017).

In this definition of gas exchange (Figure 1), Gary uses placement, a grammatical feature of BSL, and many related technical terms in a short clip showing features seen in formal explanation in BSL. This includes “chaining”, which you can see in the way he moves between English fingerspelling, the BSL sign, a BSL explanation and pointing to parts of the 3D model. This is an approach seen in sign bilingual education settings when deaf teachers give explanations.

The BSL Glossary project receives feedback from users in many ways: in emails and tweets, at science festival events we organise, and at workshops for deaf young people and teachers of deaf children. This has helped us to focus on new subject areas, and also encouraged us to produce more lab clips. Teachers have commented on how useful the definitions are for preparing to teach using BSL and to give complex explanations in a language they are learning.

To coincide with the diversity issue of this magazine, we have created a sign for physiology which you can now view on our website, but we hope to find funds to increase the number of biology definitions and add more physiology-related concepts on the Glossary website (SSC, 2019c). Each sign and definition takes about £200 to develop. This sounds expensive, but when the development processes of collecting and coining new terms is understood, it is evident that it is a complex undertaking. The terms and definitions are an important corpus in the educational use of BSL.

To find out more about how deaf students fare in studying physiology, we interviewed a deaf PhD student at Oxford Brookes University, Clare Halliday. Clare has used BSL more as a student than at school.

  1. At school, were there any challenges for you in learning biology as a deaf young person?

Clare: Learning biology at school was challenging but it wasn’t due to lack of accessibility. I went to a deaf oral school, Mary Hare School. Small classrooms with low student numbers were specially adapted and teachers were specifically trained to teach deaf students. My biggest issue was that biology is a subject that contains lots of jargon with coursework and exams involving extensive writing. My English, like most deaf people is a bit weak, so processing information wasn’t as straightforward. I didn’t achieve high grades for my A-Levels.

  1. What about at university – what have been the positives and negatives in studying biology?

Clare: University was a further challenge as lack of accessibility was added to the mix! I was lucky to get the support I needed, e.g. notetakers in lectures and BSL interpreters in practical classes. It just wasn’t enough, as I found myself over-compensating my time for the information that I didn’t get first time round. It was a difficult balance: extra reading, longer time to process, trying to fit in with the working groups and getting a bit of my own “deaf time”. University was a lesson about what my limitations are! Now, doing a PhD has the further challenge of needing to network!

  1. Do you think your concerns are similar to hearing students?

Clare: There are many similar concerns, but also I’m worrying about whether I’m pronouncing my words correctly when giving talks, whether I’ll have enough time to get work done, whether I’ll have enough DSA funding, whether I have missed anything that I didn’t know about and hoping that my thesis supervisor is understanding and supportive enough of what I can do and what takes me longer to do and whether I’ll be able to access the jobs market after graduating! There is one slight advantage – being deaf means that I use my eyes a lot more so I have a better visual memory when it comes to drawing life cycles or signalling pathways.

  1. What about careers – what are you thinking of doing with your biology degree?

Clare: At university, I thought about working in a diagnostic lab in hospitals but that was because I thought it would be an easier route – I don’t have to talk as much or to engage too much. Over time I realised that research is a lot more interesting and that my brain is capable of coming up with ideas and analysing things.

  1. Have you used the BSL Glossary while at school or university?

Clare: I wasn’t aware of this at the time of my school or undergraduate study, but it definitely would have been useful then. During my PhD I find that the words I use are very project-specific with terms such as kinetoplastids, promastigotes and the flagellar pocket.

In conclusion, the work of the BSL Glossary team is a never-ending one, as there are a huge number of concepts used in school and university which deaf students and the staff working with them need to grasp. Please contact us if you have any ideas for fundraising to collect and create more signs and definitions in the area of physiology!


Day L (2000). Session 10: Language planning and standardisation. [Online] British Sign Language in its Social Context. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019]

O’Neill R (2017). Bilingual deaf education: Bilingual deaf education language policies, linguistic approaches and education models in Europe. In K. Reuter (Ed.) UNCRPD Implementation in Europe: A Deaf Perspective. Article 24: Education. Brussels Union of the Deaf. 86 – 109.

SSC (2018). BSL Education app. [Online] Scottish Sensory Centre, University of Edinburgh. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019]

SSC (2019a). British sign language glossaries of curriculum terms. [Online] Scottish Sensory Centre, University of Edinburgh. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019]

SSC (2019b). Plant cell interactive diagram. [Online] Scottish Sensory Centre, University of Edinburgh. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019]

SSC (2019c). Biology curriculum terms. [Online] Scottish Sensory Centre, University of Edinburgh. Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019]

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