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How To Learn Sign Language

How deaf researchers are reinventing science communication

(soft music) – [Narrator] So, there’s
this little bacterium that lives in ticks,
Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It’s a nasty microbe that causes a disease called anaplasmosis. Fever, aches, vomiting
and if it’s not treated, organ failure and death. Lorne Farovitch is a grad student at the University of Rochester and he’s studying tick-borne
diseases like anaplasmosis. He wants to understand
how these diseases spread and how to better test for them in people. Lorne is also deaf. His first language is American
Sign Language, or ASL. That wouldn’t be a problem for his work, except that if he wants to
discuss Anaplasma phagocytophilum in ASL, this is currently the best option. – [Interpreter] A-N-A-P-L-A-S-M-A P-H-A-G-O-C-Y-O-T-O-P-H-I-L-U-M, Anaplasma phagocytophilum. – [Narrator] Thankfully
there’s a better way. It just means inventing new
science language from scratch. – Well, I have my protocol here and it explains the steps I need to take for each part of the process, and the first step is
for me to make antigens. – [Narrator] Lorne is working on a PhD in translational biomedical sciences. Basically, he does lab research, but also works on real-world
public health problems at the same time. We interviewed Lorne with the help of a couple interpreters. They translated our
questions into sign language and Lorne’s responses into English. So that’s the extra voice you’ll hear. Anyway, Lorne walked us through his work. – [Interpreter] The first
project, I’m collecting ticks and I’m analyzing their
global distribution and what kind of diseases they carry in what geographical areas. And that information should
help me with my second project, which is to test these ticks about what pathogens they’re carrying and develop a new diagnostic test. – [Narrator] Lorne is using a new tool called Arrayed Imaging Reflectometry. It allows him to test
a single blood sample for lots of diseases at
once, like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted
fever and anaplasmosis. Basically, he prints
multiple disease samples onto a small chip and then
coats the chip in antibodies from the blood sample in question. If the antibodies bind
with any one disease, Lorne will get a positive ID. The system lets him run about
400 tests simultaneously. Lorne’s been in science for a decade, five years for a dual undergrad degree, two years in a master’s program, and this is year three of a five-year PhD, but all the while science itself has been a language barrier that’s made his work just a little harder than it ought to be. – [Interpreter] When I really started to get into the sciences,
there were, of course, there’s a lot of jargon,
a lot of vocabulary there and there just don’t exist
the signs for these terms. There’s new discoveries
happening all the time. There are new vocabulary
words being established and ASL it’s hard to keep up
with all of these new terms. – [Narrator] ASL is its
own unique language, distinct from English,
with its own grammar, syntax, vocab, you name it. When there isn’t a good
sign for an English word, it’s common to just spell it
out using ASL letter by letter, but lots of fingerspelling is a drag. It grinds communication to a halt. Again, consider that bacterium,
Anaplasma phagocytophilum. – [Interpreter]
Fingerspelling would be like someone spelling A-N-A-P-L-A-S-M-A P-H-A-G-O-C-Y-T-O-P-H-I-L-U-M. It’s the process of looking
at someone just spelling over and over again the same terms. Students are gonna disengage. That’s not interesting. – [Narrator] The solution
is to help ASL catch up by inventing new signs. Lorne contributes to two
efforts called ASLCORE and ASL Clear. Both convene groups of deaf
experts in fields like science, technology, engineering and math, also called the STEM fields. They discuss terms that
don’t have widespread signs and they make new ones. So what does that actually look like? We asked Lorne to show us some examples. First, look at DNA. – [Interpreter] D-N-A. – [Narrator] Lorne
could fingerspell D-N-A, but now he uses this. The sign captures the double
helix structure of DNA. You can actually see it in a way that you couldn’t
possibly in English. – [Interpreter] DNA is
a double helix shape. RNA is a single strand. – [Narrator] Or go smaller. Atom, proton, neutron, electron. – [Interpreter] This is a sign for atom. In the center includes neutrons
and protons, as the nucleus, and surrounding them is the
electron cloud, hence atom. – [Narrator] Each sign
captures the way that protons, neutrons and electrons all comprise atoms. Macrophage might be Lorne’s favorite. – [Interpreter] Macrophages
are signed to this way because our body relies on their function of cleaning up things in the body. They eat pathogens and
other things in the body. They look like little
Pac-Men, so macrophage. – [Narrator] Or there’s metastasis, which is a little scarier. – [Interpreter] Here’s
the sign for metastasis. This is showing visually
the process of how cancer is spreading throughout the body, how the cells are going
everywhere within the body. – [Narrator] The new signs
that Lorne helped create are published online, so anyone
in the world can use them. And thanks to the Internet, there are more resources than ever before. There are other specialized
video dictionaries, crowd-sourced forums, where signs are shared
more ways than ever, for the deaf community to
create and share language. But all these new signs are only useful if they’re used and standardized. – What tends to happen is that a school for the deaf, or a college with deaf students, will have a word in a STEM discipline and they will create
their own sign for it. It won’t be the same as the
sign in another institution, or sometimes students will go to one class and they will see one
teacher using the sign that that teacher has,
or go to another class in the same discipline and another teacher will
use a different sign. – Geoff Poor is a retired professor at the National Technical
Institute for the Deaf. He’s also my dad, which
is how we found out about the story in the first place. Over the past few years, he’s traveled to schools
all around the country to collect signs for the STEM
fields and he’s helped build a different video dictionary altogether. Now multiple dictionaries can
lead to conflicting signs. For example, here’s the sign for molecule on Geoff’s dictionary. Here it is on ASLCORE, and here it is on another
site called HandSpeak. But that might be okay, more dictionaries mean
more ideas are shared and in time one of those
signs will probably take over. – The the energy, the
process that’s important is, which one of those
signs is the most useful for that language community? That’s what happens when an outside word comes into any language. And again, it’s a meritocracy. The best signs will win. – [Narrator] Lorne knows better than most that science communication
can make a difference far outside the lab. The final goal of his dissertation is to make information
about tick-borne illnesses more available to deaf people. The work is urgent. Climate change is helping
ticks expand their territories, putting more people at risk and often deaf people are not well-served by the information that’s out there. – [Interpreter] Typically
public health doesn’t have that kind of system set up to
make things fully accessible. So we want to make sure
people are aware of the risks. Often you see posters where things are listed
out in different languages, but there’s no sign language there, so it’s leaving deaf people out and putting them at higher risk. – [Narrator] Ultimately, new science signs might have the biggest
impact on the next generation of deaf students. Lorne thinks that they’re often failed by English first education. But with the right resources, they have a chance to see science in a totally different light. – [Interpreter] Well,
when I was growing up, the teacher would fingerspell a lot. And it was a struggle to get through. I never really had an interest in science in academic settings growing
up until I went to college and I had teachers that were
able to spark my curiosity more when it comes to science. And I realized that
science was interesting and it was something I wanted to get into, and so I’m trying to change
that with this group, that’s trying to come up with these signs. So hopefully, the next generation of kids won’t have the same experience that I did. – So, if you want to
learn more about this, we put links to a couple
of these video dictionaries in the description. They’re really worth exploring. They will teach you a lot
about American Sign Language and honestly a lot about science too. So, check ’em out.

100 Replies to “How deaf researchers are reinventing science communication”

  • Wonderful work and material. Hope this promotes advocacy and awareness of the deaf community, their needs, and how they also contribute immensely to our society.

  • Hi!
    Thanks for a interesting video. What´s the story behind the Dalecarlian horses in the background during the interview with your father? As a curious swede i could not help to notice it and ask. /Samuel, Linköping Sweden

  • Sign language is truly amazing. I wish we had the opportunity to learn NZSL in school as it is an official language!!

  • I could see these signs being helpful for deaf and non-deaf students learning about science. Tactile learners can struggle learning abstract concepts, such as the sub-atomic particles. This set of signs demonstrates the behavior of each particle in a physical way, a huge help for some learners. What a cool contribution from the deaf community.

  • This is great. I took sign language for 4 years and immediately knew that there were not scientific signs yet. I wanted to become an interpreter but could not because of my dyslexia. If I needed to finger spell something I might mess up too often making it too hard for me to interrupt. With the added signs/words into the ASL dictionary this will only benefit all parties involved. Amazing work.

  • I studied ASL years ago but as the years dragged past, nobody would talk with me so I have lost most of what I knew. I will check out your video dictionaries. Thank you.

  • Couldn't deaf people just read what's written on medical information sheets? Is it normal for them not to learn proper English, but only sign language?

    BTW: Another great video from you guys!

  • But remember America isn't the only country in the world!!!!
    There are many sign language variations between countries. I think this idea of making the most appropriate science signs using a public platform but should this be considered for all of sign?
    (I know nothing and accept I could be wrong!)

  • 8:08 wait. Posters with text? can't deaf people read…? (not trying to be condescending, I really don't see what he means here)

  • Is this really a problem? With smartphones and tablets today that can read out loud what you type. So someone that doesn't understand what you're saying.

  • This is insane. Auditory communication already suffers bandwidth issues and this is so much slower. Cures for blindness, deafness etc can't come soon enough.

  • Hearing scientists make up new words as needed, so it only makes sense for deaf ones to as well. Standardizing science terms in sign-language is no different than standardizing science terms in other languages; it's up to the scientists to publish their results and terms and such and for others to find and copy them. It really shouldn't be any more challenging in that regard.

  • Thanks Verge. There's also this brilliant astronomy resource which might go well with the other 2 dictionaries in the description:

  • That's unbelievably awesome!!! I cannot express how happy I am to know this exists!

    I do, however, have a question… Deaf sing sign languages are usually like any other language: each contry (or group of countries) has its own.
    How could we make this STEM sign vocabulary more universal? Actually, could we do that?

  • ASLCore seems very cool, but at 4:03 why is philosophy green when biology is blue? Everyone knows that life, biology, is green, so the symbol for it should be green too.

  • I don't see why this is an issue, we make similar shortcuts in every language all the time. For example, even in writing internationalisation is often abbreviated to i18n. Effectively you're simply creating a short version of a word/sentence, as soon as you've communicated the few exceptions and you're done. Standardization isn't a bad idea but if the domain is too limited, it's not useful.

  • Nice to see that it's fully captioned. Too bad a lot of the captioning is light colored print on light colored backgrounds…

  • This is both fascinating and a look into the world of those who are not able to hear. I was amazed at the speed people are able to sign in. It would have been good though if the captions had been lighter or darker depending on the background.

  • How come deaf people don't talk? Wouldn't they of learnt how to pronounce the words when they are learning sign language?

  • What I found most fascinating is how the ASL signs had these embodied intuitions of the ideas being expressed, like with those signs for the electron and the DNA. Maybe we should all learn some sign language to make science learning and communication more intuitive and fun!

  • Looking at the new signs being made here makes me wonder if the deaf could outpace regular students when it comes to understanding scientific concepts since the concept is ingrained with the sign.

  • I took ASL for 3.5 years and also now work in a laboratory. So this video could not have been more perfect for me. ASL and language, in general, is fascinating. Great video.

  • I'd like to take a moment and appreciate the default on-screen text that they put there along with the people speaking them out so the contents of this video can definitely reach out to deaf communities. Nice work, guys!

  • This is so interesting! I’m an undergrad biology student and noticed on many occasions how inaccessible working in science can be. I love learning about ways to make it more accessible!

  • Verge please please do other videos on other signing communities!! Like the historic Martha's Vineyard. Or the crippled and struggling Hand Talk (Prairie indigenous sign languages). Or Puerto Rican Sign Language, Black American Sign Language, Protactile, Keresign, Haoilona 'Ōlelo, Ktunaxa Sign Language, LSQ or many many more!! Maybe do something on how Alexander Graham Bell helped launch a genocide again "Sign Language Peoples" in 1880?

  • They need to adopt a Universal Science Sign Language, because of how the vast majority of the science community switched to Latin for universal science terms. (Well animals and stuff, but the point still stands…)

  • Great stuff. Being a Coda, it’s really interesting how this works for the deaf community. Thumbs up, and added to favorites.

  • The background music is unnecessary and made me unsubscribe from this channel. Ironic you had to fill up a video that is partially about deafness with all that background noise. I find these attempts to "induce – excitement" as disingenuous. If your content is good enough you don't need to dress it up – and annoy your audience. Thanks. Ugh.

  • I'm not deaf, but I really wish I was learning the sign language from the childhood. It's so useful and intuitive.
    I believe they could be as useful as written languages.

  • 8:03 So deaf poeple can't read normal letters? That doesn't make sense to me.
    What does written sign language look like?

  • Why not just use laptop or phone by typing what you want to say while others are looking at the screen? You can train yourself to type really fast. You can chat this way with anyone – deaf or not – you're not limited to just a handful of people that know the same sign language as you do.

  • I hope that the entire world will have just one standardized sign language, so that it's easier for a deaf person and a sign language interpreter from one country to communicate to those others in another country.

  • @8:05 He said posters often list public-health information in multiple languages, but not sign language, thereby excluding deaf people. This doesn't make sense to me. Most deaf people are literate.

  • Would love to see more built-in subtitles in your works! These obvious, easy-to-read ones were way more reliable than YouTube's automated ones. Fascinating video!

  • Here's a question. How is it that deaf people who can read English don't respond well to the 'watch out for ticks' posters? That if there's a standard sign to discuss ticks and the bacteria that they carry (Anaplasma Phagocytophilum) that that will have more impact than the written word? Very curious to know since it's clear I know squat about ASL.

  • I understand modern video technology has become quite advanced. All the same, sometimes the simplest techniques are the most practical and robust. — ASL needs an ASCII-based writing system.

  • Honestly? Seeing the way that these signs actually convey the meaning super well with gestures… some kinesthetic learners could really benefit from learning the sign language for science at the same time as the spoken and written language for science.

  • Really cool video, but should really have someone signing the video throughout, subtitles can be difficult to keep up with especially in a video about asl you should use asl for the whole video

  • great video! however, the provided captions on screen need a background- it's standard CC procedure, because plain letters on footage can often get lost and unreadable when the footage is of a similar color. there are actual standard youtube captions on the video as well, but just a heads up, since this is a video about the inclusion of deaf and hard of hearing ppl 🙂

  • Check out the amazing native ASL "talk" by deaf scientist Mandy Houghton at

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