Sign Language In Space

American Sign Language (ASL) is the fourth most commonly used language in the US.  It is so completely different from British Sign Language that the two languages are mutually unintelligible.  Developed at the American School for the Deaf shortly after it opened in 1817, ASL is used in the United States, Canada and several other countries.

However, until last week, it had never been used  on the International Space Station. That changed when US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson gave a video address aimed at schoolchildren in ASL last week.

In the video address, Caldwell Dyson discusses how she learned sign language in college from a deaf teammate on her track team. She continued studying the language and later, as a teacher, taught  advanced science and chemistry to deaf student. Caldwell Dyson told that these experiences opened her eyes to the many challenges deaf people face, as well as how capable they are of overcoming them:

“Ultimately, this isn’t really about me learning or knowing ASL. This story should be an avenue for deaf students from children in kindergarten to college undergraduates to doctoral candidates to see themselves belonging to this amazing thing called NASA and participating in scientific research and space exploration.”

In the video, Caldwell Dyson encourages deaf students to pursue careers in space if they want, telling them:

“One thing I have learned is that deaf people can do anything. The only thing they can’t do is hear. Maybe someday you can fly into space and live on the ISS.”

The 6-minute-long clip was sent to schools across the US and posted on NASA’s website,

"My Valentine" Video Sign Language Bloopers

For the video to his latest single, “My Valentine,” Paul McCartney wanted to reach out to the deaf community.  So, instead of starring in the video himself,  he decide to leave the visuals to two talented (and attractive) Hollywood stars you might have heard of: Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman. The two sit in a dark room, sunlight streaming in, and gaze oh-so-soulfully into each other’s eyes, mouthing and signing the lyrics to the song.

It’s beautiful. It’s smoking hot. It’s Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman. Queen Amidala and Captain Jack Sparrow. That quirky chick from Garden State and Don Juan DeMarco. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, neither Depp nor Portman use sign language regularly. Despite the coaching they received, this led to some rather embarrassing bloopers that unfortunately weren’t caught until after the video’s release.

For example, as this article points out, at one point in the song Johnny Depp tries to sign “Valentine” and ends up signing “enemy” instead. The worst gaffe of all, though, is the accidental use of the British Sign Language sign for “tampon” instead of the American Sign Language sign for “appear,” a mistake made by both actors.  How romantic! (To be fair, the two signs are extremely close.)

However, a  spokesman for the British Deaf Association told the Sun that overall, the organization was still quite pleased with the video:

“It’s great that famous people such as Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman are highlighting the use of sign language. Their use of it is more a poetic expression. The sign for tampon does seem to come up from both Johnny and Natalie, which causes some confusion, especially as American and British sign languages are different. It would have been nice if genuine deaf people had been used. But it’s still great.”

Rescued Deaf Pit Bull Learns Sign Language

Rosie the pit bull had a rough start in life. First of all, she was born deaf. She was also born a pit bull, a breed of dog that all too often gets poor treatment and a bad rap in the United States. At three years old, she ended up homeless at the Central Nebraska Humane Society.

That’s where Rosie’s luck started to change for the better.  Shelter volunteer Tracie Pfeifle realized that Rosie could not hear, and that her disability was limiting her ability to interact with her human caretakers. So, she began teaching her a few simple signs in American sign language.

Pfeifle told local news station KCTV:

“We started using treats and putting the treat up to your face and saying ‘good girl’ with your thumb up and then she figured out how, that we were communicating with her…It was just amazing to watch her just blossom into a dog, I don’t think she knew how to be a dog.”

Even better, after three months in the shelter, Rosie went home with a new owner. Cindy Koch, who is also deaf, adopted her. Koch plans to teach Rosie more sign language, she told KCTV:

“Because I’m deaf and we want to relate to her, and understand how she feels – want to communicate with her through signing, teach her signing…I’m going to teach her my sign language, how deaf people communicate, she’s a smart dog, she can pick up fast,” Koch said.

Dogs with special needs often have a more difficult time finding homes. If there isn’t a no-kill shelter or rescue program available, that means they are more likely to be put down. Fortunately, there are organizations in the both US and the UK who focus on finding homes for deaf dogs.

In the US:

Deaf Dogs Rock

In the UK:

Deaf Dog Network

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Matthew Almon Roth

Different Grammatical Structures Use Different Parts of the Brain

All languages have a vocabulary and a grammatical structure. However, the type of grammatical structure varies depending on which language you are looking at. In some languages, like English, the order of the words largely determines the meaning of a sentence. However, in other languages, like German, word order is more flexible because the language uses “tags,” like prefixes or suffixes, to make the meaning of the sentence clear.

If trying to learn a language with a different grammatical structure than the one you were born speaking makes your head feel like it’s going to explode at first, there may be a very good reason: you’re having to use a different part of your brain than you normally would.

In American Sign Language (ASL), the meaning of a sentence can be determined either by word order or by “tags.” So, the same sentence can be signed two ways-either using word order or using tags. In a study performed at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, researchers found that individuals fluent in ASL used a different part of the brain to comprehend a sentence signed with tags than they did to understand the same sentence signed using word order.

The researchers showed 14 deaf individuals, all native ASL signers,a video of a study coauthor signing the same sentences in two different ways. While the study participants watched the video, the researchers used functional MRI scans to monitor their brain activity.

To the authors of the study, the fact that different areas of the brain were used to process the different types of syntax implies that we comprehend language using neural structures that originally evolved for other purposes. As coauthor Aaron Newman told Science News:

“We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains. Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”

Who Should Win This Sign Language Rap Battle?

Jimmy Kimmel may have made history on Tuesday, when he hosted what was billed as the “first ever (probably last ever) sign language rap battle” on his show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!

A sign language rap battle? How does that work?

Kimmel invited three of the most well-known and experienced live music American Sign Language interpreters to interpret for his audience. Holly Maniatty, Joann Benfield and Amber Galloway Gallego have interpreted for a long list of musical performers including Eminem, Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and Snoop.

The interpreters took turns interpreting a live performance of “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa.

ASL interpreting at concerts has grown in visibility over the past few years, fueled in part by videos of the interpreters enthusiastically performing for their audience.  Their interpretations have captured the attention of hearing and deaf fans alike, and of the artists themselves. In 2013, rapper Killer Mike told Slate the way Holly Maniatty interprets is “[A}n art form; that’s more than just a technical skill.” Watch the video, and you’ll see why.

Another great moment in ASL interpreting came after the rap battle. Asked if he usually has a sign language interpreter onstage, Khalifa responded “Yeah, sometimes I get like pretty stoned, I can’t remember the words.” As it turns out, you don’t have to know ASL to understand the sign for “marijuana.” To quote Holly Maniatty, “It’s pretty universal.”

After the performance, the rapper was assigned the difficult task of choosing a winner. He took the easy way out and chose all three.  Who do you think should have won?