Highlights from AAAS: The sign language of science

One of the most interesting stories I read about AAAS 2011 wasn't even about a presentation—or, anyway, it wasn't about the topic of a presentation. After watching sign language interpreters translate conference sessions for Deaf attendees, journalist Ferris Jabr wrote a fascinating piece for New Scientist about how sign language can be invented on the fly, with interpreters creating brand new signs for technical and scientific terms. It's no easy task, especially given the fact that interpreters aren't necessarily experts in the subjects they're signing about.


Maureen Wagner's task this morning is to talk about cutting-edge brain surgery - without speaking a word. As a neuroscientist on a stage behind her delivers his speech, Wagner translates his words into sign language for members of the audience who are deaf or hard of hearing, her fingers spinning through the air with impressive dexterity and speed.

Simultaneous signing is a formidable challenge at any time - but all the more so when the subject of discussion is epidural electrocorticography (a technique in which researchers drill through the skull to place an electrode directly on the thin membrane that envelops the brain).

Wagner's sign for it - cupping her right hand into a little dome and poking the grooves between her fingers with her left hand - isn't an everyday gestural symbol like a peace sign, nor is it part of American Sign Language's visual vocabulary. Rather, it's Wagner's own invention, an impromptu gesture that derives its meaning from immediate context.

New Scientist: When hand-waving makes for good scientific discussion

Image: Petteri Sulonen via CC



  1. When I was a freshman there was a nearly-deaf guy in my bio class. He had a translator with him (sometimes just someone typing up what the professor said, sometimes actually signing). I always wondered whether there really were words for some of those terms.

  2. If the word isn’t spelled out before creating the new sign then a deaf person like me wouldn’t know its a sign for epidural electrocorticography and might refer to it as “drilling the head thingy” when writing.

    I prefer a literal translation of the spoken words, unfortunately an interpreter wouldn’t be able to keep up if they do that.

Comments are closed.