Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL

June 9, 2018 – 3:48 pm

I’m a Deaf engineering professor. I want to teach my engineering college classes in ASL. This is a goal I have for the next couple decades of my engineering faculty career — to teach my way through all the core undergraduate engineering courses, plus the required undergraduate ones in my field of electrical/computer engineering (ECE) — in ASL.

Right now, this is not possible.

This might seem strange, because — I’m Deaf! I sign! I’ve taught engineering at the college level for years! But nope: being an expert at teaching a topic and being fluent in a language… does not mean you’re automatically able to teach that topic in that language. You need to be fluent in that topic, in that language.

And for that to be possible, vocabulary needs to exist. You need ways to efficiently express disciplinary concepts in the target language (in this case, ASL). Vocabulary is a key part of language; language has to be there for communication to happen; communication must happen for teaching to occur. And right now, I don’t have (good) signs for basic concepts such as “voltage,” which is an idea so fundamental that I can’t teach elementary school electronics without it, let alone college-level classes.

Now, I can (and do) teach engineering voice-off, signing, but I’m not using ASL when I do so; I’m using a signed form of English (which some people would call PSE or contact sign). I’m basically transliterating, with the occasional insertion of ASL grammar and a couple of classifiers. I’m not voicing, but you could read an entire English engineering lecture off my lips. In other words, I’m teaching in “English, with hands.”

ASL is not “English, with hands.”

We need vocabulary. We need ways to express these ideas within Deaf language and Deaf culture — ways that are efficient, that don’t require tons of expansion every time. In English, we say “voltage,” not “the electric potential difference between two points.” The latter is a definition, not a term. Similarly, I can explain voltage in ASL (perhaps as “electric pressure point point compare”), but I need a sign for the concept, and other concepts like that. If I can’t, I don’t have a professional vocabulary. It is akin to restricting technical communication to Basic English or Up Goer Five. If someone used the phrase “funny voice air” instead of “helium,” we’d figure they didn’t know what they were talking about, because there’s a word for that.

We also need ways to express these ideas within this language, not just ways to refer to the concepts as expressed in another language, as with fingerspelling. Yes, short fingerspelled words can turn into lexicalized signs, like “bank” and “OK,” and in this case perhaps “amps,” but what do we do for “semiconductor” or “bypass capacitor” — abbreviate? “SC” is already “South Carolina,” and “BC” is birth control, and I’d like to use my brain for things other than figuring out sentences like “You’ll need a BC in P to smooth the MC input V.” Or if we break the English word into components and then sign those, we get things like “tiny administrative person” for “microcontroller” (micro-controll-er). And then I flinch again, hard.

At that point, we’re just pointing to the English. If I wanted English, I would use it. I want ASL.

Every other Deaf engineer I know does this exact same thing. The moment we begin discussing technical topics, our signing shifts — hard — towards English. Perhaps we flinch a little and apologize to each other for using mouthing (and only mouthing/lipreading) to distinguish between “electric,” “battery,” and “circuit.” Perhaps we comment that, yes, signing “tolerate” (as in “to put up with, to bear”) is a poor sign for “tolerance” (permissible variation in a measured value). But we do not have other ways to do this. Not yet.

Fascinatingly enough, this has happened before — in engineering and computing and other college-level STEM fields, even — with spoken languages. There are plenty of examples of decolonizing the language of (collegiate/professional) instruction — I recently learned that Japan is doing this, for instance — but my favorite example is Hebrew and the War of the Languages. When the first Jewish (later Israeli) universities were being established, they knew that Jewish culture was amazing, and that Hebrew was a rich and beautiful language with a deep, deep history and multiple ways of expressing the concept of “God” — but no way to express the concept of “computer.”

And guess where a lot of their professors had trained? Germany. Austria. All their notes, all their books, all their training on… say, computers — they were obviously not in Hebrew, because there was no Hebrew word for “computer.” But yeah, it was a little problematic to be teaching programming… at a Jewish university… in German. And so, rather than capitulate to “eh, I guess we have to teach in German,” they built up the Hebrew language so that they could have technical discussions within it. They enriched their language and their culture instead of switching to another. This took a tremendous amount of work — many people, over many years, working to create a world where it was possible to teach computing in Hebrew. And now they have it.

That’s what I want for ASL and engineering (and computing, and technology). It’s going to take a long time. Probably the rest of my career. (“Congratulations, you’ve found a lifetime side project.”) It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with a lot of people and a lot of work and it’s never going to be done, because languages are never done. It’s going to be a lot of awkwardness and stumbling experimentation and a lot of new engineers brave enough to go out into the world not just with technical skills, but with language (ASL) to communicate those skills, and we’ll have a lot of short-term inefficiencies compared to “but why don’t you just teach it in English or signed English?” — but look: we’re going to make a world.

It does not yet exist. That’s why we need to make it.

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  1. 4 Responses to “Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL”

  2. Is there ASL specific to mathematical concepts? Then engineering concepts could be dialects of the mathematical fundamentals. my 2c

    By Lui on Jul 24, 2018

  3. There isn’t ASL specific to many mathematical concepts yet. We do need more vocabulary development for math and physics in order to build more engineering terms — we’re already using some of them.

    For instance, our new sign for “transformer” (the electrical component) uses the sign that the ASLCore physics team came up with for “power.” And our new sign for “algorithm” uses an existing (widespread) sign for “calculation.” It all builds.

    By Mel on Jul 31, 2018

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