University of Edinburgh

BSL Glossary: Mathematics and Statistics

Funders Report

Originally sent to Institute of Mathematics and its applications (IMA), London Mathematical Society (LMS) and Edinburgh Mathematical Society (EMS) in 2015.

Details of Research Activity

Deaf children in the UK who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their primary form of communication often have poor access to English and find it more difficult to write class and exam answers in school and university. There are concerns that there is insufficient specialist vocabulary to help students to learn and communicate technical details. In 2007, a BSL Glossary project was started at the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC) at University of Edinburgh that aims to create, define and develop BSL for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for deaf students. However, to date, there remains a limited glossary of BSL terms for mathematics.

This project aims to fill this gap and is being led by Dr Ken O’Neill. The aim is to expand the Glossary of signs and terms for mathematics and is a collaboration between the SSC (Rachel O’Neill and Dr Audrey Cameron), deaf sign linguist (Gary Quinn, Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University), deaf scientist (Frankie McLean), three deaf mathematics teachers (Gerry Hughes notably was the first deaf mathematics teacher in Scotland, Catherine Birch and Malcolm Sinclair) and Prof. Nigel Mottram.

Here we outline our methodology for expanding the current BSL Glossary for Mathematics and Statistics:

  • Review of all signs within the existing Glossary
  • Collection of specialist terms with possible input from external organisations: IMA, LMS and EMS
  • Creation and development of new signs
  • Evaluation of these new signs after the workshop
  • Filming these new signs, their definitions and examples
  • Uploading all appropriate video clips to the BSL Glossary website
  • Translation of definitions and examples from BSL to written English
  • Further evaluation and feedback

We conducted a review of the eighty-one signs from the existing BSL Glossary. In this step, we decided whether we would keep, remove, upload or modify these existing signs. We then attempted to focus on over 200 mathematical and statistical terms collected from Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) National 4 and 5 curriculum documents as well as their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) counterparts. This was undertaken over one weekend in late April with the personnel identified above, consulting with each other to discuss how specific terms are usually signed. This process of reviewing existing sources (if available), proposing new signs that can show the concepts visually and debating appears well suited to BSL. Once we reached agreement, draft signs are filmed and made available on the internet so that these can be discussed with the current team for evaluation.

In summary, we created a total of seventy-seven new signs along with the existing eighty-one signs and a majority of these signs provided a foundation for us to allow us to build up more work easily in the future. Recently, teachers within the current team have already used several signs to their students, such as equation, expression and term which are obviously crucial in the algebra topic. According to them, their students found these new signs easily understood and helped them to progress. As expected, the creation and development of these signs were not without issues. The most critical issue was we took care to ensure that each sign did not give away too much additional information during SQA and GCSE examinations, and we found this restriction problematic for us when creating some signs whilst ensuring that these remained visually clear enough. The complete list of over 200 mathematical and statistical terms took up considerable time to develop but, assuming we are able to secure more funding, in the next workshop we aim to break down this particular large list into smaller lists grouped under relevant headings for each day which should help focus.

After discussion, we would then attempt to film the signs and their definitions – due to time constraints and the complexity of the discussions over the weekend, this has not been accomplished yet and would be dependent on more time and further funding. The process of deciding on a BSL definition can be lengthy since the team attempt to work from their own understanding and usage of mathematics and statistics rather than from a written English textbook; if the person signing the definition relies too much on the structure of written English the definition runs the risk of losing features of BSL, such as simultaneity, use of classifiers and metaphor in explanation.

To disseminate our work further, we have already submitted our paper for IMA’s international conference on Barriers and Enablers to Learning Maths: Enhancing Learning and Teaching for All Learners and we delivered a presentation at this conference. As a team we are presenting a paper at the International Congress of Education of the Deaf in Greece in July 15: What is fair access to exams for signing deaf candidates? (O’Neill, R., Cameron, A., Quinn, G. & Burns, E.). Eileen Burns and Rachel are attending. This paper evaluates how technical terms are used in BSL in the Scottish exam system and compares two methods of presentation: through a member of the school staff and through a centrally produced translation on DVD. Audrey and Rachel are also presenting papers in Brazil in August which will probably be: How technical signs are used to discuss science in an online space between BSL users.

Clearly, this is an ongoing, long-term project and both new additions and changes will be made to the BSL Glossary for Mathematics and Statistics. Once we have reached the end of this project, the next step would be to repeat this again for new terms that are relevant for SQA’s Higher and Advanced Higher Mathematics curriculum documents while some care must be taken to ensure that terms in both GCSE and A-Level will be included. Beyond Advanced Higher, it will be problematic to continually expand the BSL Glossary due to the vast range of mathematics topics found at least at undergraduate degree level and we may need to consider how to tackle this enormous problem, for example additional people and support will be needed, and a new strategy will be necessary to implement this particular problem.

Utilisation of funds

The funds have paid consultants fees and travel expenses: individuals’ fees, travel and subsistence for seven people with expertise on BSL, science and/or mathematics, as mentioned earlier in this report. Funding was contributed by Institute of Mathematics and its applications, London Mathematical Society and the Edinburgh Mathematical Society.

Expected impact of project

This project will benefit current students who are deaf in having access to mathematics and concepts in sign language. It will also benefit those working with deaf students in that they will be more able to discuss the subject in sign language. However, it is likely that there are a few deaf students currently enrolled on Mathematics or Mathematics-related degrees simply because it is difficult to study these subjects without access to a full technical language at school or university. This project’s main impact will therefore be in promoting use at schools, expanding access to higher education, and to assist future undergraduate students. It is expected that all deaf students can benefit from this project. However, most of the positive benefits will be in the longer term as more deaf children have access to mathematics and associated concepts, and subsequently pursue further study in this subject area. Wider participation in higher education is of benefit to all students but of course is the most benefit to those students for which it would be otherwise be impossible to reach this level of education.

Currently, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill is making its way through the Scottish Parliament, having passed Stage 1. If the Bill passes (as is expected, having received unanimous support in the Chamber for Stage 1) and becomes an Act then BSL may be more widely adopted by individuals and not just deaf people, just as Gaelic has become a language of choice for others who may not have been exposed to Gaelic otherwise. It may become easier to improve access to mathematics and statistics for children if BSL is offered as an option, but there is of course an acute need to build up a glossary of signs if this is to be a reality. Any work undertaken in relation to this area may therefore bring significant attention and interest due to its relevancy. The resources of the Deaf Community, drawn into the SSC Glossary Project, could then be used by a much wider group of children, hopefully including more mathematicians and mathematically literate citizens.