Australian Sign Languages

Signs of Change: Contemporary Attitudes to Australian Sign Language

Used with permission: Claudia Slegers, Monash University

A Brief History of Auslan

Sign languages exist everywhere in the world where there are communities of deaf people, with numerous different sign languages used in different regions of the globe. However, each of these sign languages is independent of the spoken language of the surrounding hearing communities. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are very different and mutually unintelligible, even though both deaf communities inhabit countries with English as their official spoken language. Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the sign language used by most deaf people in Australia (Page 1).

Auslan evolved from the sign languages brought to Australia during the nineteenth century from Britain and Ireland through the migration of deaf people, teachers of the deaf, and members of religious orders concerned with the welfare of deaf people. Two schools for deaf children were established in Australia in 1860 by deaf British men: a school in Melbourne was set up by Frederick J. Rose, and a school in Sydney was established by Thomas Pattison. Since that time, Auslan has evolved to be slightly different from British Sign Language, however, the two sign languages are still (generally) mutually understandable (Page 2).

Auslan received linguistic recognition in 1989 with the publication of the first dictionary of Australian Sign Language, by linguist and native signer Trevor Johnston (1989). At the same time, he coined the term ‘Auslan’ (Australian Sign Language) to describe Australia’s sign language. Following lobbying by peak deaf community group Australian Association of the Deaf (now called Deaf Australia) and several linguists, Auslan was recognised as a community language in an Australian Federal government white paper on language policy (Commonwealth of Australia 1991). However, Auslan has not yet been recognised in government legislation (Page 2).

Sign languages have historically been suppressed in many parts of the Western world.  Throughout most European countries from the 1700s onwards, schools for deaf children favoured an ‘oralist’ educational approach where use of sign language was forbidden or discouraged lest it interfere with the learning of speech. Children were taught to speak, and lip read the dominant spoken language. New Zealand’s deaf education system had governmentally mandated oral policies from 1880 until the mid-1970s (Page 2).

Australia’s first two schools for deaf children, established in 1860, used signs and fingerspelling with simultaneous speech, a method thought to be modelled on the combined method used in parts of Britain at the time. The more exclusively oralist schools in Australia were established in the early twentieth century by the Catholic church, and in the 1950s following a visit by prominent British arch-oralists, the Ewings (Page 3).

The Suppression of Sign Languages

The historical suppression of sign languages reflects a trend where minority languages have been perceived negatively and oppressed by the majority, yet reasons other than mere linguistic prejudice help explain why sign languages have been singled out for suppression. For instance, the manual-visual mode of sign languages, when compared to spoken languages, means that they have been seen as too alien to be accorded equal status as spoken languages; moreover, the users of sign language have been seen as ‘too like us’ to be given their own language:

Only two kinds of people, after all, fail to use your language properly: foreigners and the mentally retarded. The deaf clearly were not the former: They did not come from some other land or visibly constitute a distinct community in our own, like, for example, the Navajo Indians … And their failure to use our [language] properly, like that of a person with mental retardation, could only be the result of faulty intellect (Page 3).

Opponents of sign languages have long believed that their use, especially in the classroom, discourages the learning of oral communication skills. In this way, proscription of sign languages has appealed to hearing parents eager to believe their deaf children can learn to function like hearing people, and on those terms participate more fully in society. However educational research has shown that deaf children struggle to make sense of spoken language when it is the medium of instruction rather than a sign language (Page 5).

Another important factor underpinning negative perceptions of sign languages involves the social status of the deaf people who use them. This reflects a more general pattern where language attitudes are shaped by the status of their users, with language use a symbol of a more generally stigmatised social identity. Deafness has historically been and continues to be seen as a ‘disability’, and as Branson and Miller point out, this is compounded by the subliminal equation of muteness with dumbness, and dumbness with stupidity (Page 5).

In Western cultures, this is coupled with a definition of politeness … “where gesticulating is minimal, pointing is rude, and mouth movements and facial expressions are minimal and subtle, the tongue well out of sight … The mouth movements and gestures integral to signing, positively disable the Deaf culturally within the hearing community” (Page 6).

For many deaf people, the views of their (hearing) parents about sign languages appear to have reflected the historically negative ideas of broader society. Leon, a deaf man aged in his sixties interviewed for this study, recalled his parents’ reluctance to allow their son to mix or sign with a deaf family who lived near their house in the 1940s and 1950s. Leon’s parents were ‘embarrassed about seeing sign language’, and ‘tried to push [him] away from them’. However, Leon recollected being drawn to the family and keen to communicate with them through signing. Leon recalled, “Signing wasn’t considered a language in those days. People would just say, ‘Talking with their hands.’ That’s how they would refer to it.” Leon recalled that after six months attendance at the local deaf school in 1944, he had spontaneously started signing at home and school. His parents discouraged him from signing in front of other people, and quickly moved him to a mainstream school (Page 7).

Similarly, Ursula (aged in her mid forties when interviewed) remembered that her parents were adamant that she learn only speech and lip reading, and she was sent in the early 1960s to a pre-school that used oralist methods. Recalling childhood memories of going into the city centre with her mother, Ursula said, “[One day] we pulled up behind a car and it had deaf people in the back signing … and I’m like, ‘Oh, Mum they’re deaf!’ Mum said, ‘Yes, aren’t you lucky you’re not like that … You can talk, you don’t need the sign language, you’ve got beautiful speech. Very, very lucky girl.’ So she had this funny thing about signing; she couldn’t see it as a beautiful language.” Ursula remembered her mother reprimanding her for gesturing and pointing to ask for food; Ursula would be requested to repeat her mother’s words after her, enunciating carefully, “I want a jam sandwich.” Even parents of younger deaf people now aged in their twenties or early thirties continued to discourage their children from learning Auslan. Gemma, now in her early thirties, recalled, “Mum and Dad didn’t want me to sign. They believed that I should speak and lip read and be oral” (Page 7).

Deaf people of deaf families whose parents and grandparents grew up signing at home recall that these older generations felt uncomfortable signing under the gaze of the hearing public. Evan, aged in his late forties, was born into a large deaf family and remarked: “[So] when you meet people in their seventies and eighties now, you’ll see that their signing space is quite small and it’s low down [in front of their abdomen] because they were embarrassed to be seen in public … to be seen to be signing. Whereas now, signing space is much bigger and it’s higher up because people don’t care!” (Page 8).

Signed English

A stark indicator of educationalists’ misconceptions about sign languages has been the invention of artificial sign systems – in north America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere – to represent spoken language in a visual-manual modality. These systems have been, and in some locations still are, used in educational settings to teach deaf children spoken language. In Australia, the most well known of these systems is often referred to simply as ‘Signed English’, and was the medium of instruction in schools for signing deaf children from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The inventors of Australia’s Signed English reorganised the word order of signs in Auslan in an attempt to mirror the order of words in spoken English sentences, and invented signs or finger spelled English words were added to supply the supposedly missing English elements. For example, rather than signing in Auslan I SHOP GO which translates approximately as ‘I go to the shop’, the inventors of Signed English attempted to mirror the English sentence with I GO T-O T-H-E SHOP (Page 9).

The use of such systems may cause educational problems for pre-lingually deaf students (that is, those whose deafness was present at birth or at least before the development of language) who as a result must depend on such a system as the linguistic base from which they operate. The experience of Yvonne, an interpreter interviewed for this study, appears to support this claim. One of Yvonne’s first jobs as an interpreter was working at a school with a policy of using Signed English. Yvonne recalled, “Slowly I realised that the kids were not getting it. They were just not getting it. And it was just so stiff and horrible” (Page 9).

Deaf people interviewed for this study who were compelled to use Signed English at school were unanimous in their frustration with this communication system. Natalie, aged 24 when interviewed, remembered asking her parents to move her from a school that used Signed English because she found it slow and cumbersome to use, and far less expressive than Auslan: “With Auslan you get the facial expression, the context, so you don’t need all these unnecessary words, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘the’ and it is a lot quicker” (Page 9).

Past Attitudes of Deaf People to Auslan

When deaf people were asked about how they perceived sign languages during their childhoods, their responses could be summarised as ambivalence and a degree of ignorance: lack of awareness initially, that the signs they furtively used in the playground with their classmates, for example, were part of a genuine language; sometimes shame about needing to ‘resort’ to using sign language rather than speaking; and at times a powerful attraction to sign language. These conflicting attitudes were most pronounced among those from hearing families and where their parents had no experience with Auslan. As mentioned earlier, Australian deaf people have been using sign language since at least the early 1800s, evolved from the sign languages brought from Britain and Ireland during the early days of settlement (Page 10).

What is relatively new is a name for the language, Australian Sign Language, or Auslan, and its linguistic recognition as a genuine language. Before coinage of the term Auslan, deaf people did not have an official name for their language. Melbourne deaf people would just sign the term SIGN, or MY OLD SIGN, or among older people, fingerspell the word ‘sign’. In 1989, when the Auslan dictionary was published, deaf people in Sydney would still refer to their language as they always had, TRUE DEAF SIGN or FULL DEAF SIGN (as opposed to ‘incomplete’ or ‘hearinglike’ sign), writes Johnston (1989). Interviewee Leon described some of the confusion among deaf people: “When I meet other older deaf people nowadays, they still don’t understand what [the term] Auslan means. I’ll say, ‘I work as the Auslan Program Coordinator’. And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t use Auslan, I’ve never used Auslan.’ But they do say, MY OLD SIGN, literally … But in fact it is Auslan. Auslan is such a new name for them. It was only really recognised in 1989. And it’s the same signs” (Page 10).

Other interviewees highlighted what little was known about Auslan until recently. Jen, a deaf woman raised in a hearing family in remote northern Victoria, recalled a course she took during the 1980s to become a teacher of the deaf: ‘They didn’t even know that the grammar [of Auslan] was different [from English].’ British researchers describe similar stories about British Sign Language (BSL) before it was recognised and given a name (Edwards and Ladd 1983). A relatively more recent Irish study of attitudes toward Irish Sign Language (ISL) found that only 23 of the 30 deaf participants recognised ISL as a real language, and that confusion remains among some deaf Irish people in distinguishing between ISL, signed English and BSL (Page 10).

Many deaf interviewees described ambivalent feelings about Auslan, sometimes an early uncertainty or rejection of it followed by a later embracing of Auslan as they reached adulthood. Gemma, 31 when interviewed, recalled childhood embarrassment about signing: “When [my friends] signed in public I would say, “Hey, don’t do that, use your voice!” … Now I don’t care.” Similarly, Ben commented that when he first started using Auslan as a young man he was very conscious of what hearing people thought (Page 10).

Deaf people may be eager to improve their spoken and/or signed English, seeing this as vital for social and economic success. Interviewee Dan commented disparagingly about deaf people trying to demonstrate their knowledge of English and/or signed English, rather than using Auslan, when giving public presentations: “A lot of deaf people who grew up with signed English, they want to show that they’re clever, so they’ll often use signed English as a way of showing off their [knowledge of] English” (Page 10).

When conducting participant observation at a deaf community organisation, the researcher found that two deaf colleagues there were initially hesitant to use Auslan with her even though they signed to each other. The following observations were recorded in field notes: “I’ve found it hard to practise using Auslan because Rick often tends to talk to me rather than sign, whilst I try to sign … It could be that … he sees that it’s easier to communicate by speech whilst I’m still learning Auslan. Maybe Rick is keen to show he can speak quite well, and/or given the fact I’m hearing, speech should be used with me” (Page 11).

American linguist Barbara Kannapell has described the hesitation of deaf people to use their sign language with hearing people: deaf people ‘have learned that they are not supposed to sign to hearing people in ASL so they try to sign in English and speak also (Page 11).


Auslan is my language now; it’s my – identity, my involvement with the deaf community. I have deaf friends, I work with deaf staff, it’s my language. I can speak, but Auslan is where I identify” (Sarah, aged 33, mainly oralist education) (Page 12).

A growing demand for qualified Auslan interpreters has occurred in recent years, for the many important encounters deaf people have with the wider hearing community, for example, doctor’s appointments, university lectures, and some financial transactions. Until the past two decades, deaf people were often compelled to ‘make do’ with written messages or by co-opting a hearing relative or welfare officer to interpret, but there is now more commonly an expectation that qualified Auslan interpreters should be provided. Interpreter Vivian observed that, “the deaf community are very comfortable with the use of interpreters. It’s a normal part of their world to have interpreters coming in and out of their life.”

In 2004, after intense lobbying by peak deaf community group Australian Association of the Deaf, the Australian government granted $18 million for the provision of Auslan interpreters for doctor’s appointments. Sign language interpreting practice is now recognised through the national accreditation system that awards qualifications to Auslan interpreters alongside spoken language interpreters (Page 13).

Pride in Auslan is evident in the way it is described in information distributed by deaf organisations to the general public. The following is part of a press release from the Australian Association of the Deaf for mainstream media inviting people to a Learn to Sign Day: Auslan – Australian Sign Language – is used by Australian Deaf people, and they are very proud of their unique language. They want others to know more about it and learn their beautifully expressive language too … [This is] the Deaf community’s opportunity to showcase their community, its culture, and rich and expressive language (Australian Association of the Deaf 2005) (Page 13).

Auslan is now taught as an accredited course as a language other than English (LOTE) at secondary schools and is in the Year 12 (VCE) curriculum. Ben, who had taught classes to hearing people at colleges, witnessed ‘a big change’ in public perceptions of Auslan, adding that recently students had been motivated to learn Auslan ‘more out of a sense of curiosity to learn about deaf people than a sense of ‘helping’ [them]’ (Page 14).

However, we should be careful not to form an overly optimistic assessment of the current status of Auslan and other sign languages. The only course in Victoria that qualifies teachers to instruct deaf children retains a pro-oralist approach, as several of this study’s participants reminded the researcher. Paul, who has a moderate to severe hearing loss and uses English as his primary language, lamented that ignorance persisted about Auslan and is a manifestation of broader ignorance and prejudice about deafness itself:

A lot of hearing people associate deaf[ness] with being a bit less intelligent. They just have the assumption that, “Oh deaf people … they don’t go very well at school, and the language they’ve got, oh, it’s not really a language … They get by with making a few gestures” (Page 14).

Similarly, interpreter Yvonne commented that ‘there’s still not enough exposure. Because it’s different, people just see it as less’. Yvonne continued, her frustration evident: “Even parents of deaf kids don’t get it. So I mean if they don’t get it, how are you going to expect the wider community to get it?” (Page 15).

Reference: Slegers, C. (2010). Signs of Change: Contemporary Attitudes to Australian Sign Language. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. Monash University, Australia. Pages 1 – 15.