Language learning has been a passion engrained in me since birth; it was inevitable with the melting pot of cultures that is my family tree. My mother tongue is English, I conquered the complexities of German through school and university, tried my best in Italian with family and on holidays and dabbled (by that I mean barely dipped my toes in the water) in Norwegian independently.
Having grown up in Australia, I began to become rather frustrated with the lack of opportunities for total cultural and linguistic immersion without selling an organ or two to afford to travel to the countries of my target language on a regular basis. Despite the futuristic advances in online language learning, I personally started to feel that I was putting in a lot of effort for something that I would not be able to use in my everyday life. So I started to look inwards, into Australian languages.
My journey began with the consideration of learning an Indigenous Australian language. However, choosing one out of the 150+ became too arduous a decision. It was almost by chance that I stumbled across a short course in Auslan (Australian Sign Language) at my university. It was from there that my Auslan journey began.
What is Auslan?
Auslan is the official sign language of the Deaf community in Australia, and is used regularly by over 15,000 Australians. The term ‘Auslan’ was coined in 1989 by Trevor Johnston, a linguist who wrote the first book on the language, by combining letters from the words “Australian Sign Language”. Auslan is a vibrant and complex language that makes use of 3D space, facial expressions, body movement and signs to create an elaborate visual form of effective communication (Johnston & Schembri, 2010).
A common myth surrounding sign languages is that there is one universal sign language in use around the world. In fact, there are approximately 300 sign languages globally. As with spoken languages, sign languages develop organically over time in different locations. Interestingly, the majority spoken language does not necessarily influence the mutual intelligibility of various signs between countries. An example is American Sign Language (ASL), which is barely understood by Auslan users, despite both being used in English-speaking countries. However, ASL shares similarities with French Sign Language due to the French origins of the first teachers of the deaf in US history. British Sign Language (BSL) and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) are the most similar to Auslan, with approximately 80% mutual intelligibility between these languages (Johnston & Schembri, 2010).
Learning the language of the Deaf as a hearing person
“Hearing”, “hard of hearing” and “deaf” are common terms used to define people who can hear, those with limited hearing, or no hearing respectively. Linguists often refer to people learning a second language as “L2” learners (L for language) and while learning Auslan as a second language makes you an L2 learner, it also makes you an “M2” learner (M for modality) (Goldrick, Ferreira & Miozzo, 2014). Modality refers to either using hearing and speaking, or seeing and signing, to communicate language. Learning a second modality opens a world of new thinking which previous languages had been unable to unlock in my brain, as well as a new perspective on what I consider to be effective or efficient communication. For example, verbally speaking the sentence “the brown cat chased the white mouse down the stairs, around the corner and down the street” would take much longer than its signed equivalent, which after a flurry of signs to establish the characters, would simply show where the characters are going. Furthermore, I found that in studying other languages such as German, I could spend more time reading and writing than speaking and listening. However, Auslan requires more human interaction due to its lack of written form, making it a much more personal language.
Why can't Auslan be learned (or taught) the same as any other languages?
Auslan does not have much in the way of available resources for beginners, online or in print. The Deaf community is proud of their distinct culture and language, and my experience tells me that its members prefer that you learn Auslan properly, from a Deaf teacher, in a voice-off environment, with real-life interaction in class. This is the case because learning autonomously may train you to apply English grammar and structure to Auslan signs, which is undesirable considering that you might miss all the linguistic features integral to Auslan. Learning a 3D language such as Auslan independently through online resources is likely to cause you to acquire bad habits, which are difficult to unlearn. Most importantly, a Deaf teacher will provide a context for which the language is used and needed, and will open your eyes to life as a Deaf person in a world that is often inaccessible, oppressive and discriminatory. By learning Auslan you are not just learning a language, but also a rich history, culture and way of life that is present every day in our own backyard, not some far-off distant land. Do not be discouraged – I have left some handy online resources below in case you want to impress the teacher before starting a course.
Learning languages has opened my eyes to different ways of thinking around the world, but it wasn’t until I started learning Auslan that I realised language learning is an achievable feat that I can apply to life in Australia. Auslan has opened many doors, including lifelong friendships and career goals, and is a language that I would most definitely recommend learning.
Special thanks to Ryan Malonda for his contributions.Any reference to the ‘Deaf community’ is a general statement that does not intend to stereotype or generalise an individual’s opinions.
Goldrick, M., Ferreira, V., & Miozzo, M. (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Language Production (p. 390). Oxford University Press.
Johnston, T., & Schembri, A. (2010). Australian sign language (Auslan) (pp. 62-63). New York: Cambridge University Press.