How do you sign “heterogeneous mixture” to a deaf person?

ASL, ASL-STEM, interpreterImagine you’re sitting in a high school biology class or a college chemistry lab. The professor is giving a heated lecture using a whole host of long, difficult words. But every time she says “heterogeneous mixture” or “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” she spells out the entire term one letter at a time. That’s what life is like for deaf students and professionals in the sciences. But instead of a two hour class lasting for four hours, interpreters stand at the front of the classroom, signing as fast as they can.

This endless scientific spelling bee is the result of a lack of technical vocabulary in American and international Sign Languages. In a recent New York Times article, Matthew Schwerin, a professional physicist working for the Food and Drug Administration, describes his experience as a deaf physics student: “For the majority of scientific terms [my interpreter and I would] try to find a correct sign for the term, and if nothing was pre-existing, we would come up with a sign that was agreeable with both parties.” This method also came with what Schwerin calls, “a lot of finger-spelling and a lot of improvisation.”

So, not only was Schwerin learning new vocabulary every day, he had to invent a language in order to use it. Sounds like a tall order for an established scientist let alone a student, but things are changing in the deaf scientific community. Thanks to the magic of online video the internet is teeming with newly invented signs, and the language is growing in ways it never has before. But how do you condense this mass of communication into a standardized form that everyone can use? It might take something like. . . a dictionary.

(Did you know that American Sign Language is not related to English? Learn the whole story.)

Students and professionals in the deaf community throughout North America are collaborating on the ASL-STEM Forum (American Sign Language – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), a wiki-style forum for sharing newborn scientific and technical signs. The ASL-STEM began as a research venture of the University of Washington, and the architects of the site are taking a refreshingly organic approach to its development.

“Language use and evolution cannot be directed by the few, no matter their expertise,” says the ASL-STEM mission statement. “Instead, languages change because their users choose to change them.” The statement goes on to describe the forum as “an attempt to connect you, all of the ASL users of North America, together so that you can, of your own accord, introduce the necessary vocabulary to your language.”

With this mindset, the ASL-STEM gives ownership of its vocabulary directly to those who use it, making the growth of scientific vocabulary in Sign Language a vibrant illustration of a living language.

Do you think dictionaries for the hearing have something to learn from this example?

What sign would you add to ASL-STEM?


  1. Kartvizit -  January 28, 2013 - 4:15 am

    you’re right, I agree with you mate

  2. Jennifer Jenkins -  January 13, 2013 - 2:22 pm

    I have been a Deaf Educator for 13 years. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Just buy a thesaurus and don’t make up your own signs. It’s offensive. These signs exist, you need to go to a specialist to get them.

  3. Ray -  January 3, 2013 - 3:53 pm

    Use a better sign language–like my “Sumero-Egyptian Handsignage…”

  4. Jass'ifer M. -  December 31, 2012 - 1:29 pm

    I am very interested in the deaf culture i am working on my sign my neighbors are deaf i love when they sign it looks so cool to me for some reason!


  5. Xander Seo 서보만 -  December 21, 2012 - 5:48 pm

    American Sign Language is very beautiful.

  6. Kris R. -  December 21, 2012 - 2:12 pm

    I signed my name at an early age. It can be easy but as you make progress it gets harder. Since there are different ways to use sign language such as finger spelling.

  7. Transliterator -  December 20, 2012 - 2:42 pm

    This is another great example as to why Cued Speech is an excellent system. It gives visual signs for phonemes that directly relate to spoken language, unlike Sign Language.

  8. LaNell Barrett -  December 20, 2012 - 6:27 am

    As a person with life long hearing difficulties (undiagnosed as such)
    that got suddenly much worse in my early 50′s, I do not know ASL. What is the point since I speak quite well, but understanding speech is diminishing progessively…everyone ELSE would need to know ASL that I come into contact with on a daily basis.

  9. Aaxzej -  December 20, 2012 - 2:54 am


    Please keep posting more interesting news, facts and/or historical accounts related to communication.


  10. JP -  December 19, 2012 - 6:15 pm

    Nice to see my colleague’s hands in the picture accompanying this article. Too bad we didn’t copyright it, because so many schools, websites, and companies are using it. Major props to DATC and Dan Mathis for this pic. Check out our ASL-Interpreting Program!
    Indeed, many technical fields don’t have ASL signs for the jargon in use today. This doesn’t mean ASL is inferior to English. We simply have a visual/spatial way to describe terms that arise in linear English. And contrary to popular belief, ASL is a very complex language to learn.

  11. Evelea -  December 19, 2012 - 3:05 pm

    That’s really nice. It only makes sense to help out the deaf as much as possible.

  12. Vanessa -  December 19, 2012 - 2:03 pm

    As an interpreter for the Deaf, I have experienced high level courses in the science department at Universities. Interpreting is a whole process all it’s own that is difficult because we are simultaneously taking in one language, processing it and putting it out in another language. ASL, having its own grammatical structure, is it’s own language with a community of Deaf individuals that also have their own culture. This would be fantastic for a development of signs for scientific terminology, but I do see this taking a while to actually become accepted in the language unless its actually developed by deaf individuals who use the terminology on a regular basis. And as science continues to advance, the terminology will as well, meaning its a never ending learning process of learning new signs and the language of science too.

  13. MC Editor -  December 19, 2012 - 9:48 am

    The word “heterogenous” in the title of this blog is incorrect. The word “heterogeneous” in the text is the correct term. Heterogenous is a biology term.

  14. SCIENCE-ASL | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 19, 2012 - 5:39 am

    [...] “Science and American Sign Language” — One more thing exhibiting our personal idiocy — We know that our sign is butt Libra — So much for balance — There the Silence has a much different sound. — The hand sign of our ultimate IQ — Forgetting about the U — With so many fields and opportunities awash in a World of Expanding Fields and ways to earn a living — A Necessity  — Our ignorance forgiving — Standard and Poor — Investment Moor — What’s a troglodyte to do? — One more future uncertainty principle too. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on December 19, 2012 by LTRhyme. [...]

  15. Dynamo -  December 19, 2012 - 3:10 am

    but cool.

  16. Dynamo -  December 19, 2012 - 3:09 am


  17. arvind -  December 19, 2012 - 2:37 am

    cool invention …….!

  18. sheen -  December 18, 2012 - 11:47 pm

    it’s very interesting!
    i surprised that ASL is a language.

  19. Caroline -  December 18, 2012 - 9:32 pm

    did you know they made gloves that can interpret sign language

  20. | To see science -  December 18, 2012 - 8:49 pm

    [...] came across a blog post today on Dictionary.com that briefly examined the problems surrounding science education in classrooms to deaf students. [...]

  21. anonymous -  December 18, 2012 - 6:43 pm

    sign language is tough!!!

  22. honey -  December 18, 2012 - 5:57 pm

    yo bro it is good. You like porridge?

  23. Chanda -  December 18, 2012 - 3:47 pm

    THANK YOU! I knew all these emails paid off and the timing is perfect in the light of the Government’s recent ASL petition.

  24. RosalynRants -  December 18, 2012 - 3:25 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

  25. Nuthirala -  December 18, 2012 - 2:21 pm

    not that i read it

  26. Nuthirala -  December 18, 2012 - 2:20 pm


  27. Ruth Jackson -  December 18, 2012 - 11:56 am

    This is so cool. I’ve been studying ASL since high school and love learning more everyday. I was born Deaf but didn’t learn ASL until high school because my parents were never told about this really unique language. So many times people ask me about signs for complicated concepts and I have to tell them to spell it out or describe it because there is no real sign for it. Thanks for this article.

  28. Pedro -  December 18, 2012 - 7:01 am

    Very interesting reading. Be sure to check out the NYT article. It’s amazing how many people are unaware that ASL is a language, not simply an inventory of hand motions that literally translate English utterances word for word. In fact, British Sign Language and ASL are quite different from each other. ASL has more in common with the sign language of Quebec.

  29. Myra Price -  December 18, 2012 - 6:49 am

    Thank you for doing! Much needed.

  30. Bubba -  December 18, 2012 - 6:09 am

    At last! Something of interest and worth. I’ve been ‘Bluster’d to the point of insensitivity and neural numbness. We all need a break now and then, but it would have been nice to have left us with something meatier to chew on.

  31. Emilio Francesquini -  December 18, 2012 - 1:49 am

    Did you mean “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty PrincipLE”?

  32. PAULA -  December 17, 2012 - 5:40 pm

    I am glad the internet technology will be able to assist in creating the necessary language.


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