DCU is creating an Irish Sign Language glossary for maths

2 Mar 2018

Dr Elizabeth Mathews, DCU, with Minister John Halligan, TD. Image: Jason Clarke

DCU research is developing a glossary of Irish Sign Language terms for maths education. Dr Elizabeth Mathews spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Imagine you are learning maths, but there is no term to describe a concept or practice. When that situation arises for students learning through Irish Sign Language (ISL), the student and teachers often come up with workarounds, but it’s hardly ideal.

Enter a new project led by Dublin City University (DCU) researcher Dr Elizabeth Mathews that is building a glossary of maths terms in ISL and hopes to grow into other areas of learning, too.

The year-long ISL STEM Glossary Pilot Project kicked off in January and, thanks to support from Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover programme, it will run for a full year as a pilot to focus initially on maths.

“The difficulty on the ground is that sometimes, in the teaching of maths, a teacher who is teaching through ISL encounters a word for which there is no common sign,” explained Mathews, an assistant professor in DCU School of Inclusive and Special Education.

“The teacher can come up with a sign and explain to the students this is the term – that is the short-term workaround. But that means you might have different teachers even within the same school using different signs for terms, and the lack of a universal vocabulary for maths presents real difficulties for deaf students at third level when they work with an ISL interpreter.”

Curriculum detectives

Today, ‘a couple of hundred’ children use ISL to learn maths in schools and classes for the deaf, but the impact of the glossary will be wider, as it will provide terms for teachers and interpreters as well as the parents and wider families of the students themselves, noted Mathews.

“More than 4,000 people use ISL at home in Ireland,” she said. “We want them to have terms to be able to have conversations about maths.”

To help develop a common resource of terms, the project is working through the maths curriculum in Ireland, from junior infants to Leaving Cert, and building a glossary, according to Mathews.

“Some of these words will already have signs, and some won’t,” she said.

For the terms that currently have no sign in common usage, finding the appropriate term will involve some detective work for the researchers.

“In deaf education, the use of ISL was reasonably common up to the late 1940s in Ireland, but then it went through a few decades of decline,” she said.

“So, there could be terms that were in use in maths in the 1930s or 1940s, and people who learned maths at that time might know what they are.”

Roadmap for new signs in STEM

Mathews is working on the project with “a fantastic team” including science communicator Dr Shaun O’Boyle, Dr Joe Travers from DCU, teachers of the deaf, representatives from the deaf community, and ISL teacher Valerie Mahon, who appears with Mathews in this short video about the project.

As well as producing the maths glossary, they hope to develop a roadmap for the process of developing a new sign if needed, according to Mathews.

“We want to see the best way to do that; for example, you need to go back to the root of the word in Greek and translate it. We hope that will contribute to the development of terms internationally,” she said.

The team will also liaise with experts who have built technical glossaries elsewhere, including in the US and Britain. “We are inspired by the work in Britain where a small maths project went on to develop into areas such as astronomy, geography and physics,” said Mathews.

“We hope that our project is the first step to a bigger scheme to develop STEM resources for ISL.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication