Story: New Zealand Sign Language

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is the language of New Zealand’s deaf community and was made an official language by the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. NZSL can express concepts from both English and te reo Māori but is itself a distinct language. 

Story by Rachel McKee
Main image: The passing of the 2006 New Zealand Sign Language Act was celebrated by supporters on the steps of Parliament.

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New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is the language of New Zealand’s deaf community. In use for over a century, it was made an official language by the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. In 2018, about 23,000 people in New Zealand had some knowledge of NZSL. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 of these are deaf people for whom it is their main language. NZSL community members generally call themselves ‘Deaf’, in the sense of a cultural and language identity.

NZSL has a distinct vocabulary and grammar that has developed in the deaf community. Signs express concepts, and grammatical and expressive meaning is conveyed by movements of the face, head and upper body. A fingerspelled alphabet is used mainly for proper nouns and terms that have no equivalent sign.

Most deaf NZSL users are deaf from birth or early childhood. Only about 5% of deaf children have deaf parents and acquire NZSL from birth as a native language. Most deaf children are born into families who are not deaf and have no experience of NZSL or links to the deaf community; some families choose to learn NZSL alongside their child. Depending on their parents’ choices and the opportunities available in their schools and communities, some deaf children and young people learn NZSL later. Hearing children born to deaf parents usually acquire NZSL in the home, as well as a spoken language.

NZSL is closely related to both British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan), thanks to the historical and ongoing contact between these countries. BSL, Auslan and NZSL form a language family known as BANZSL, with BSL as the ‘mother’ language. It is likely that there were deaf people who used BSL among early emigrants from England and Scotland to New Zealand.

From 1870, some deaf New Zealand children were receiving private tuition in BSL, and others were sent to schools for the deaf in Britain and Australia in which BSL was used for instruction. Presumably they introduced sign language to deaf acquaintances on their return to New Zealand. BSL and Auslan signs, and more recently American signs, have continued to come into NZSL through migration, travel, sporting and educational exchanges, and the internet.

Deaf clubs and sports organisations emerged from the early 20th century. Until the 1980s, NZSL was used privately among deaf people within these organisations. Signing was not viewed positively by society, and members of the deaf community internalised this stigma.

Deaf education and NZSL

NZSL is closely linked to deaf schools. It can be assumed that NZSL originated in the colony’s first residential school for deaf children, which opened in Sumner, Christchurch, in  1880. The Education Act 1877 required all children to attend school – except for those with disabilities. In 1878, MP William Rolleston, a future minister of education, argued that deaf children should be educated locally rather than sent to deaf schools in Australia.

Children at Sumner School for the deaf
Speech training at Sumner School of the Deaf in the 1950s, a central part of the curriculum. All hands are firmly clasped on the desk – no signing was allowed. van Asch Deaf Education Centre.

The government decided to open a residential school for the deaf in Christchurch, and Gerrit van Asch from the Netherlands was appointed director. Van Asch was a proponent of the ‘oralist’ teaching method (originating in Germany), which focused on teaching lip-reading and speaking. This was considered a modern (‘normalising’) approach to deaf education, in contrast to the older French approach, in which deaf students were successfully taught literacy and other subjects through the medium of sign language.

To ensure that signing would not contaminate a ‘pure oral’ environment, the Sumner school at first did not accept deaf children who already knew sign language or fingerspelling, or had no speech. Van Asch erroneously believed that if children could not speak and lip-read, but preferred to sign, they were ‘too feeble-minded’ to be educated.1 Some of these children were educated by private tutors, or sent to Australian schools which used sign language for instruction.

The deaf schools brought isolated deaf children together and signing developed secretively among them. Although signing was prohibited in classrooms until 1979, boarders at the three deaf schools that were eventually established communicated informally in the playground and dormitory using signs passed on by older children. The close bonds formed among students were maintained in adult community networks and organisations, in which NZSL was also used.

During the Second World War, the possibility of Japanese submarines caused concern about North Island children crossing Cook Strait, and a deaf school was opened at Titirangi in Auckland (it later moved to Kelston). Epidemics causing deafness swelled enrolments and this school continued after the war. Children at the Auckland schools developed signs which added regional variation to NZSL. A Catholic school, St Dominic’s, opened in 1944 in Wellington (it soon moved to Feilding). The first group of teaching sisters were trained in Irish Sign Language in a Dominican deaf school in Australia. Although they were not permitted to use signs while teaching, a few Irish signs were used by older people who attended this school.

During the 1960s, many babies were born deaf as a result of maternal rubella epidemics. Deaf units were opened in schools around the country so children could receive special education closer to home. Many children in this period moved between a deaf unit at primary school level and then a residential deaf high school where they shared signs with teenage peers.

Acceptance of signing in deaf education

During the 1970s, parents, deaf people and some education professionals became dissatisfied with the poor outcomes resulting from focusing on speech training at the expense of communication, learning and self-esteem. Following their lobbying of education authorities, a system called Australasian Signed English was introduced in 1979 as part of a new American approach called Total Communication, in which signing was combined with speaking. Although this was an artificial method of signing, it gave deaf children and teachers permission to communicate with signs an added visual support for learning spoken and written language.

As it was generally believed in the 1970s that deaf adults in New Zealand had no local sign language, Australasian Signed English consisted mainly of Auslan signs. These soon spread into the adult community, expanding the lexicon and replacing some traditional NZSL signs; some early New Zealand signs are now used only by a few older people. This intervention increased the similarity between modern NZSL and Auslan, although they remain distinct varieties. Deaf schools were important settings for the development and transmission of NZSL, which was formally accepted as a language in education in the early 1990s.

Woman signing to a boy in class.
Angela Murray, NZSL interpreter, working in a mainstream classroom with a deaf student. Fairfax Media.

Current policy for the education of deaf children recognises the value of NZSL to their learning and well-being. However, due to a shift away from residential special schools, and the rise in cochlear implant use, over 90% of deaf children now attend local mainstream schools, where they are usually the only deaf student. These students often rely heavily on one adult signer and hearing classmates who have learned to sign, which is not always an ideal learning situation.

Variation and change in NZSL

Dictionaries of NZSL show alternative signs for many concepts. Like any language, NZSL has variations that have developed over time. Older and younger people, northern and southern signers, and men and women, may prefer different signs for some common concepts. Research has found that sign variants in the examples below are typically used more by particular groups, as labelled.

Diagram showing variations of sign for age, region and gender.

NZSL is less standardised than English and some other more widely used signed languages (such as American Sign Language) because it has only recently come into use in institutional contexts such as education and the media. There is variability in vocabulary, and differences in how signers produce signs and use NZSL grammar.

All sign languages are used in contact with the surrounding spoken language. Signers often mix features of NZSL and English – for example, signing with English word order, simultaneously voicing or mouthing words with signs, or fingerspelling English (and Māori) words that are uncommon in NZSL. Signing mixed with features of speech is known as ‘contact language’; it varies according to the signer’s strength in each language, who they are talking with (deaf or hearing), the setting, and the topic.

Pākehā and Māori deaf children attended deaf schools together and they later socialised in adult deaf community networks. Since sign language is generally passed on in these deaf settings, rather than within biological families, Māori and Pākehā deaf people use NZSL in common. Deaf signs express concepts through visual elements rather than originating in spoken words, so NZSL signs can be translated into either English or te reo Māori.

Examples of signs being translated into English and te reo Māori.

Signs for Māori concepts develop in NZSL as Māori deaf people gain more access to cultural knowledge of te ao Māori, which has been historically difficult for them to acquire.

Examples of signs for te ao Māori concepts.

As in every language, NZSL users create, or borrow, new signs to express new concepts and experiences as society changes. Technology is one topic that has prompted many new signs, such as internet, Google, download and Facebook. Signs from American Sign Language are also increasingly adopted into NZSL as a result of online exposure to globalised deaf interaction.

Recognition of NZSL

The name New Zealand Sign Language and the abbreviation NZSL appeared in the mid-1980s, following Marianne Collins–Ahlgren’s PhD research which documented the grammar and lexicon of the language. This led to the creation of a Deaf Studies Research Unit at Victoria University of Wellington, which worked with the Deaf Association to produce a research-based dictionary of NZSL.

Awareness of NZSL was also boosted by the first training of sign language interpreters in New Zealand in 1985, and by Christchurch’s hosting of the World Games for the Deaf in 1989. These events brought NZSL into the public eye and began to break down the stigma associated with the use of sign language. An American interpreter trainer, Dan Levitt, worked with deaf community members and interpreting students to make the first NZSL dictionary.

After 20 years of advocacy by the deaf community and its allies, the New Zealand government recognised NZSL in the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. The Act acknowledged that NZSL was a language unique to New Zealand and the preferred language of deaf people, conferred official language status on it, and instructed government agencies to consult with the deaf community on making information and services accessible through NZSL, ‘so far as reasonably practical’.

The law ensures the right to use NZSL in courts, but does not create any other specific rights or obligations regarding its use. Unlike the Māori Language Act 1987, the NZSL Act did not create an agency to oversee its implementation, or a budget to promote and maintain NZSL. The practical effects of the law in strengthening the rights of NZSL users and the vitality of the language have therefore been limited.

In 2011, the effects of the New Zealand Sign Language Act were reviewed by the office of the Minister for Disability Issues. Although submitters claimed that deaf NZSL users were still encountering the same barriers they had faced before 2006, the review recommended no changes to the law.

In 2013, the Human Rights Commission undertook an independent enquiry into problems for NZSL users. Its report recommended that the government take action in three key ways: support deaf children and families to learn NZSL and to access education through NZSL; expand the provision and regulate standards of interpreting services to improve accessibility for deaf people; establish an advisory body and allocate resources to progress the aims of the New Zealand Sign Language Act.

Cover of NZSL Strategy document
In 2018 the New Zealand Sign Language Board published an official NZSL Strategy to provide guidance for government and other organisations regarding priorities for the promotion and maintenance of NZSL. Office of Disability Issues.

Following these recommendations, the Ministry of Education funded First Signs, an NZSL early intervention service run by Deaf Aotearoa NZ. In 2015 an NZSL Advisory Board was established, with an annual budget of $1.5 million, to promote and maintain NZSL, and advise the government on policy and practice concerning NZSL.

Since 2007, awareness of NZSL has been promoted during NZSL Week, usually held in May each year. This campaign is run by Deaf Aotearoa NZ, with financial support from government and other sources. A week that celebrates a national sign language is internationally unique. Deaf Aotearoa has played a key role since 1977 as the national deaf organisation advocating for the recognition of NZSL and the rights of deaf people.

Poster promoting NZSL Week.
The 2019 NZSL Week campaign had the theme 'My Language, My place' which aimed to draw attention to the unique value of NZSL to New Zealand. Deaf Aoteaora NZ.

Teaching and learning NZSL

As deaf people began to use NZSL in public spaces with interpreters from the mid-1980s, public interest in learning NZSL grew. Deaf people have been teaching NZSL since the early 1990s, mainly in adult community education settings. Degree-level study in NZSL and Deaf Studies is available at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). A national school curriculum for NZSL was created by the Ministry of Education in 2006, and NZSL is now an NCEA subject, although NZSL teaching in schools is limited.

Since 1997, deaf NZSL teachers have been trained in the Certificate in Deaf Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington. Resources that support NZSL learners and teachers include: an online dictionary of NZSL; a reference grammar of NZSL; an online independent learning site, Learn NZSL and NZSL curriculum resources for teachers.

Deaf people have been trained and recruited as teachers of deaf children since the 1990s when they began to access university education with interpreters. Also at this time, educational authorities recognised that Deaf adult role models offer valuable support to deaf children’s learning and identity.

Families of pre-school deaf children are offered home-based NZSL tuition by deaf mentors through the First Signs service. Many First Signs children also have cochlear implants, which helps them learn spoken language. Parents who learn NZSL see it as advantageous for their child to be fluent in two languages and to have deaf role models.

NZSL interpreting

NZSL interpreters support deaf people’s access to many areas of life, including education and training, employment, healthcare, justice, and family and public events. A professional qualification in sign language interpreting has been offered by AUT since 1992. Now a bachelor’s degree, this is a requirement for entering the interpreting profession. Students of interpreting study the language and culture of the NZSL community, interpreting techniques, professional ethics, and the community settings in which they will work.

In recent years, NZSL interpreters have been seen more regularly in media briefings during civil emergencies such as earthquakes, fires and pandemics. This has increased deaf people’s access to information and raised awareness that NZSL is critical to their participation in society.

NZSL signer at PM's Covid press briefing.
Sign language interpreter Jenn Gilbert in action during Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson's COVID-19 media update at the Beehive Theatrette, 1 April 2020. New Zealand Herald.

Digital technology and NZSL

Digital technology has been liberating for sign language users globally. Previously, opportunities to communicate in sign language were limited to face-to-face encounters with another signer – for working adults, this was typically at a weekly Deaf Club gathering. The need to meet in person limited deaf people’s opportunities to socialise, exchange information, or use NZSL in everyday settings. Online applications and platforms that capture and transmit video such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, YouTube and others allow deaf people to interact and share information in NZSL at any time and across any distance.

Video apps for mobile devices enable communication in NZSL, rather than through writing, or by relying on hearing people to relay spoken messages. The New Zealand government funds a free video interpreting service which enables deaf people to communicate with non-signers (e.g., plumbers, medical services, grandparents) through a call centre staffed by trained NZSL interpreters who relay the conversation in real time. This service also allows an interpreter to be virtually present in a situation such as a workplace meeting when a local interpreter is unavailable.

Another growing use of technology is translated public information (for example, health or electoral) in NZSL that is posted online to achieve accessibility for the deaf community. Teachers are now using video communication applications such as Zoom to interact with deaf students in schools in areas where there are few other signers. Digital online resources designed for students of NZSL have also enriched the learning experience by providing video practice materials.

The internet and video technology have exploded opportunities for NZSL to be used as a vehicle of interpersonal communication and information exchange, much as the invention of the printing press and later the telephone did for spoken languages. 

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

  • Collins–Ahlgren, M., 'Aspects of New Zealand Sign Language.' Unpublished. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1989.
  • McKee, R. L., People of the Eye. Stories from the Deaf World. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2001.
  • McKee, R. L., New Zealand Sign Language: A Reference Grammar (E-book edition). Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2015.
  • McKee, R. & McKee, D., 'Old Signs, New Signs, Whose Signs? Sociolinguistic Variation in the NZSL Lexicon'. Sign Language Studies, vol 11, no.4, 2011, pp.485–527.

More links and websites

Footnotes

  • 1. Collins–Ahlgren, M., 'Aspects of New Zealand Sign Language.' Unpublished. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1989. Back
How to cite this page:

Rachel McKee, 'New Zealand Sign Language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/new-zealand-sign-language (accessed 30 October 2020)

Story by Rachel McKee, published 25 Aug 2020, updated 1 Sep 2020