University of Edinburgh

About the BSL Glossary

Welcome to the BSL Glossary Project. With this project, the SSC aims to develop lists of subject-specific terms (called a glossary) in British Sign Language. There are many places on the internet where you can now find subject specific signs in BSL. The SSC BSL Glossary's unique feature is that we also have definitions in BSL and often lab movies or examples to add additional background knowledge to the definition. Our target audience is deaf young people at school who use BSL and who want to learn independently using the internet. We are also pleased to know that many teachers, Communication Support Workers, interpreters and parents are using the Glossary too.

A pilot for the Glossary project started with 80 Maths terms signed by Gerry Hughes, who was working with the late Dr Mary Brennan in 2005. Since then the Glossary has grown so there are over 1000 signs and nearly as many definitions in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subject areas. We have focused on the STEM subjects to start with because we have found a strong team of Deaf scientists and Maths graduates who have helped us collect and develop BSL vocabulary in these areas. However, we aim to expand the Glossary into all areas of the curriculum. We are interested to know your views about what subject areas you would like us to tackle next.

The Science glossary

The project has received funding from several sources. In 2007 we received £25,000 from the Scottish Government which allowed us to make a start with Chemistry, Biology and Physics. Since then we have received additional funds from Learning Teaching Scotland (as it was in 2008), from SQA in 2009 and from the STEM Disability Committee (which composes of representatives from the Royal Academy of Engineering, The Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine) in 2011-12. As we have found more funding we have been able to expand the number of science terms and BSL definitions.

The next development is the Geography Glossary which is being funded by a variety of organisations, for a taster see this article featuring our new Geography team member, Dr Rhian Meara:

What does a glossary contain?

A glossary is a list of words, and this one contains BSL signs for mathematical and science terms. In fact the BSL movies form a bilingual application that is somewhat like a dictionary. Each entry in the glossary provides a BSL sign for a maths or science term, and often there is also a fingerspelled form.

In addition, many entries contain a movie that explains the meaning of the term in BSL (a definition), or provides an example of how the term can be used in BSL, within the context of a truly BSL/English bilingual understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts. Therefore English translations accompany the movies, and they also facilitate the glossary's organisation and searches.

Background to the Project

The current Glossary Project organising team is made up of four people:

  • Dr Audrey Cameron - a Deaf Chemistry teacher leads the projects to develop BSL glossary terms.
  • Gary Quinn - a Deaf linguist from Heriot Watt University who provides support and advice about BSL from a linguistic perspective.
  • Rachel O'Neill - lecturer in deaf education in the Institute for Education, Teaching & Leadership at Moray House School of Education
  • Sheila Mackenzie - web & resources administrator at the Scottish Sensory Centre

How we work

This team has worked with a wider group of Deaf scientists and Maths/science teachers from across the UK who have provided the SSC with advice about what technical terms exist in BSL already in the area of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. They have also participated in Sign Collection/Creation weekend workshops where existing terms were discussed and definitions drafted. These teams also considered how new terms could be coined in BSL, working under the supervision of Gary Quinn.

The team of consultants meet together usually for a weekend, and these meetings take place entirely in BSL. We record our work in draft form on video as we go. In some cases it is quick to find a sign, because one or several are already in existence amongst the experts in the group. NOCTURNAL and TENSION are examples of these collected signs. Another group of signs have been created by the team, using information about the concept and following the principles of the BSL productive lexicon. ENZYME and EXOTHERMIC are examples of signs like this. There is often debate in the group about some signs. For example, the term INVERTEBRATE was discussed and a sign agreed, but some members of the group tried this out with a wider group of BSL users and suggested an alternative sign which was then agreed by the group.

Some scientific concepts are particularly hard for all children to understand. The project is pleased with the signs devised for DENSITY, WEIGHT and MASS as we feel they reflect the concepts well. Perhaps they might be useful for hearing children too!

Definitions in BSL first

Once the signs are agreed, the definitions are produced in BSL. The teams use information from textbooks and their own experience to produce the definitions. We sometimes need to refilm some definitions to make them more accurate; this is similar to the process involved in making a printed dictionary when the definitions often takes a long time to devise. Finally, members of the project team translate the definitions into English. Graphics are then sourced and copyright agreed to add images to many of the entries. In the glossary we also group words together in topic areas to help users navigate the glossary in different ways.

Relationship with Deaf Education and the wider Deaf Community

The Glossary project has close links with deaf education in Scotland and throughout the UK. Most of the responses we have collected have been in Scotland from deaf BSL-using pupils and from teachers of deaf children. Through comments received from teachers, Communication Support Workers, parents, deaf young people and Deaf people who are experts in linguistics and science, we realise that there is a great deal of interest in our project from inside and outside the Deaf community.

  • In November 2012 The Hub made a TV/online programme about the work of the Glossary project which was aired on 19.11.12.

Research & Publications

Research poster "Collecting, coining and defining new terms in BSL" by Audrey Cameron, Gary Quinn and Rachel O'Neill
Research poster thumbnail, click for PDF


Tania Allen, BSc Zoology - freelance trainer
John Brownlie, BSc Physics - multimedia consultant
Eileen Burns, BSc Physics, MEd, Teacher of Deaf children
Dr Audrey Cameron, PhD Chemistry and teacher
John Denerley, Dip SW - owner of Galloway Wildlife Park
Mary-Frances Dolan, BSc Chemistry, Teacher of Deaf children
Dr Colin Dunlop, PhD in Physics, Senior Research Associate (Instrumentation Physics - Optics)
Dr Mark Fox, PhD in Chemistry, Research Fellow (Carboranes Chemistry)
Gerry Hughes, BSc in Mathematics, Teacher of Deaf children
Claire Leiper, Biology/English graduate - freelance trainer
Mark McQueen, BSL linguist with mechanical background, BSL teacher
Rachel O'Neill, MLang, Lecturer in Deaf Education
Robert Rattray, BSc Biology, Teacher of Deaf children
Derek Rodger, BSc Chemistry, MEd, Teacher of Deaf children
Gary Quinn, MA Linguistics, Programme coordinator for Interpreting course at Heriot Watt University
Janet Wardle-Peck, BSc Agriculture, Teacher of Deaf children

Exams in BSL

In Scotland pupils can choose to take their exams in BSL, that is receive the questions in BSL and sign their responses to video camera. In 2009 the exam board for Scotland, SQA, commissioned the BSL Glossary team to translate some trial science exam papers to see what the issues arose for the translators, centres and deaf pupils. We translated three papers in Chemistry and Biology: Standard Grade Biology (Credit), Intermediate 1 Biology and Intermediate 1 Chemistry. The resulting BSL papers were well received by deaf young people and their teachers. There are issues for schools in providing high quality translations of a consistent quality across different centres, and having a centrally produced BSL exam paper solved this problem. Technically we were able to embed video clips in pdf digital exam papers and found deaf pupils thought the video questions were easy to navigate. Some pupils reported that they used the video clips more than they would ask for a translation from a live teacher in the mock exams we organised. Having the terms already in the SSC's online glossary meant that pupils commenting on the trial exam papers for us had the opportunity to use a common science vocabulary wherever they studied in Scotland.

  • Assessing the feasibility of using digitised British Sign Language examination papers for deaf candidates in Scotland, Research Report 2012
  • Science Shows

    Dr Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn have been involved since 2007 in Science shows particularly aimed at young deaf people in order to publicise the work of the Glossary project. Here are some of the events from the last few years:

    • Making Connexion, Linlithgow 2011
    • Newcastle Science Festival, 2011
    • Manchester Science Festival 2011
    • Dunbar SciFest 2011 and 2012
    • The Royal Academy of Engineering, London 2012
    • DEAFinitely Science Day, Newcastle 2012
    • University of Sheffield, Summer Lecture 2012
    • Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Medical Biochemistry Institute, Rio de Janeiro 2012
    • Edinburgh International Science Festival, April 2014
    • BBC@Potterrow, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2014
    • Dundee Science Festival, November 2014
    • Reaching for the Stars (EdSign) Royal Observatory Edinburgh, January 2015

    Below is a video clip showing our Chemistry Show in BSL on Youtube