This is partly a follow-up on my post on why I can't (yet) teach engineering in ASL (short version: lack of technical vocabulary). This month, I've had the great pleasure and honor of working with one of the teams tackling that problem -- ASLCore. I get to spend three weeks this summer working on engineering and computing vocabulary as one of their content experts; so far I've been there for two weeks, with a third week coming later in July. As of this writing, the first few signs have started to appear on the website -- most are not there yet (we have several hundred), but Kai, our wonderful film/web guru, is working nonstop to continuously edit and add the new ones.
It's one of the most fun jobs I've ever had. My role is to teach engineering and computing (the latter with my friend Ian Smith) to a team of amazing ASL masters -- Deaf linguists, actors, translators, and poets -- and watch them turn my fumbling non-native signs into vivid, clear, visual renderings of technical ideas. We created both signs and expansion videos of how and in what circumstances to use which sign for what concept -- for instance, for signal processing, the sign for "frequency" in the time domain is different for the sign for "frequency" in the frequency domain.
Signs also need to link and flow together in ways that make them usable for visually discussing technical topics. Among other things, this means that two signs that will frequently appear together must be easy and smooth to sign together, both physically (hand shapes should be similar/efficient to transition between) and in the ways we use them to visually represent related concepts. A good example of this would be how we revised the sign we'd been using for "stress" (as in stress-strain curve) when we realized that it depicted the concept at the level you would see with the naked eye, but that all the other signs describing points on the stress-strain curve depicted what happened on the molecular level. We didn't want to switch to the naked-eye magnification (zoom-in) level for one sign only, but have molecular-level signs for everything else; it would be confusing, similar to the effect of counting "one, two, tres, four" (counting in English and switching to Spanish only for the number "three"). Instead, we revised the sign for "stress" to fit the magnification level of the other signs in that conceptual cluster.
We also came up with naked-eye zoom-level signs for most (but not all) of the same concepts, so signers would have the option of depicting (for example) elastic deformation either at the molecular level or the level we would typically see with our own eyes in the lab or out in the world, with an object bending or stretching past the point where it ceases to spring back to its original form. (Since the molecular-level sign set was complete, but the naked-eye level sign set couldn't be completed because of how human hands can and can't move, the molecular-level set became the default conceptual signs, and the naked-eye set became supplementary/explanatory.)
"Stress" is also a good example of a sign that seems to have an English-ASL equivalent already, but which we wanted a technical sign for. There is a sign that's often used as a translation for the English word "stress," but that one word in English doesn't always refer to the same concept -- the word "stress" in English often means an emotional state, as in "to be stressed out" or "to be under a lot of pressure." Engineering stress on a material refers to a totally different thing; the material is not psychologically freaked out by the forces applied to it, as far as I'm aware... or at least that's not generally what we mean by that phrase in engineering. (I won't go down the new materialist / posthumanist rabbit holes for this particular discussion.)
The ASL sign that's often used for the English word "stress" portrays a force pushing down on a surface, so it's a good conceptual fit for the physics concept of pressure, as in force-over-unit-area. In engineering -- primarily in mechanical/materials engineering -- we do talk about stress (on a material/object) with the same units as we use to discuss pressure, so our team did discuss just using the one existing sign to mean both concepts. But we ended up deciding we wanted to distinguish them, because we use the two English words (stress vs. pressure) in a different context within engineering, for different purposes -- it's the stress/strain curve, not the pressure/strain curve (the latter phrase is not allowed as a synonym for the former in English).
The translation team asked what the difference was. I had to think about it for a bit, but then explained that we often talk about pressure as being applied to an object, whereas stress in this context is more about the material that the object is made of, and we discuss much of that at the molecular level... so maybe the sign should also be portraying things at the molecular level, and then...
Anyway, you can see how we might have gotten there -- and that's just one example of the kinds of conversations we'd have throughout this process. It is fun.
The idea is that bringing together Deaf expertise in an academic field with Deaf expertise in (American) signed language will lead to -- finally -- linguistically, culturally, and conceptually accurate ways to express some of these ideas. We also have interpreter consultants who help us see how those signs might be used in spoken-instruction classroom situations, as well as a behind-the-scenes team doing the heavy lifting of logistics, filming, editing, annotating, and keeping the entire team happily stuffed with coffee, cheesecake, and granola bars. I can't thank them enough for letting me be part of this.
I got a chance to try some of the new signs out with friends at the annual American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference. And... and... they work. I signed an explanation of version control to a group that included non-technical ASL interpreters (who didn't know what version control was) and technical friends (who knew what version control was, but don't know ASL). The interpreters translated the everyday signs, and then when we got to one of the new (technical) signs, my friend Todd Fernandez blurted out -- and in some cases, explained -- precisely the right word to fill in the gaps. Typically, for that level of technical precision when I am signing, I have to fingerspell endlessly (and my fingerspelling is terrible) and otherwise keep on pointing to or borrowing from English. But that night, I didn't. And it felt amazing.
I want to unpack more of these signs for my non-signing, English-reading friends so you can see a little bit of why I'm so excited by this process. More on this in my next post, where I'll work on unpacking just a single word.