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Mathematical Sign Language – Interview with Dr Jess Boland

Jess Boland

We spotted award-winning physicist Jess Boland sharing YouTube clips of mathematical terms in sign language on her Twitter account – and instantly wanted to learn more. We asked her about herself, the videos, and her interest in mathematical and scientific sign language.

You’ve produced videos of mathematical terms in sign language as part of the #signscience hashtag. What’s the root of your interest in signing maths and science terms?

I am a currently a lecturer in functional materials and devices within the Photon Science Institute and School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester. I have always had a love for science and am currently researching how we can use terahertz radiation to understand the optoelectronic properties of semiconductor nanomaterials for device applications.

I am also hearing-impaired and have struggled with hearing and communication since birth. Recently, my hearing levels declined and I began to learn BSL (British Sign Language). I started to look for signs for some of the science terms that I use everyday at work and found that there were only a few terms.

The Scottish Sensory centre had recently made a dictionary for the main maths and science terms used everyday (link to app) and I was fascinated with the signs. They are extremely logical and visual, and I found that it not only helped me with my research but also helped my students, forming a great visual memory aid for the science terms.

Since then, I have been passionate about learning how to sign science and maths terms; promoting these signs to the general public; and also creating new signs with colleagues for new science terms.

Jess signing ‘Inverse’

What’s the history of sign language and mathematics? Is it recent that there are widely-understood specifically mathematical signs?

BSL is an old language that has organically developed and adapted based on society’s needs. While its origins have been traced as far back as the 1500s, BSL was only formally recognised by the UK government as an official language in 2003.

Since its origins, there have been BSL mathematics signs for common mathematical terms, such as ‘add’ and ‘subtract’. These have been used widely in the deaf community and within the school curriculum (with the first recognised school of the deaf reported in 1760).

However, more specialist terms, such as ‘quadratic expression’ are still not widely-understood. Signs for these terms have recently been developed by the Scottish Sensory Centre, who were tasked with extending STEM BSL vocabulary. You can check out these signs on their app: BSL Education (iTunes store); BSL Education (Play store)

Jess signing ‘Directly proportional’

Do you know if there are widely-understood signs for more purely mathematical things like “topology” or “integral”?

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are no well-known BSL signs for these terms. Vocabulary is still developing all the time and the hope is that as the number of deaf mathematicians grows, this will lead to development of new BSL signs for these terms. Deaf researchers tend to create their own signs for STEM terms within their research field or lab.

What should hearing people do to include deaf peers in mathematical discussion?

The most important thing hearing people can do is not to ignore your deaf peers and to assume that they cannot contribute. It is always best to ask your deaf peers how best to help them, to ask about their individual needs and how they would like you to include them.

However, there are simple considerations you could make. For example, writing down equations rather than quoting them aloud. Mathematical discussion lends itself well to joint problem solving on blackboards, where all members can contribute.

Jess signing ‘Maximum’ and ‘Minimum’

Do sign language speakers use rhythm to convey meaning, like in spoken maths – for example, using pauses to group terms which would have brackets round them in written notation?

Yes, just as in English there is a flow to signing and users will often use pauses, change in speed to emphasise the meaning. With BSL, you also have additional ways to convey meaning, such as the placement of the sign and facial expressions.

Can you name any research mathematicians or scientists who primarily communicate through signing?

Most mathematicians and scientists that I can name are mainly ASL (American Sign Language) users. There are only 30 academics who are sign language users within Europe, so the number of BSL users working in STEM is still unknown and relatively small. Here are a few names, but I am sure there are many more out there that I have missed! To those I have missed, please get in touch and say hi!

  • Lorne Farovitch – ASL user, biomedical scientist, working on ASLCORE and ASL Clear, University of Rochester
  • Dan Lunberg – ASL user, chemist, Galladaut University
  • Rhian Meara – BSL user, geography lecturer, Swansea University
  • Audrey Cameron – BSL user, chemist, University of Edinburgh
Jess signing ‘Cube root’

Where do I go to learn maths signs?

The best place to learn common maths signs is at a local deaf centre. There are a few really good apps and websites that are out there: the SignBSL app (iTunes store; Play store), BSL education (iTunes store; Play store) and the Scottish Sensory Centre website. You can also check out my SignScience YouTube channel for a range of STEM BSL signs.

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