Auslan, or Australian Sign Language, is the language of the Australian Deaf community [the capital “D” in Deaf is used to acknowledge the distinct and unique community comprised of deaf people who use a signed language as their primary language of communication; it recognises their distinct identity within the Australian context].
Auslan is a rich language with a capacity to express all aspects of human communication – including the abstract, metaphor, humour, sarcasm and so forth – equally as well as English or any other spoken language.
Like all languages, Auslan is culturally bound so that some things or concepts which hold cultural relevance are more extensively encoded into the language whereas other concepts which do not hold much cultural relevance have a paucity of lexical items (signs) to express them.
What Auslan is
- like all sign languages, a language in its own right; linguists have established this through research that began in the 1960s
- a visual, gestural language that occurs in three-dimensional space and uses signs to represent concepts, in the same way that spoken language uses words to represent concepts
- has its own grammar and structure which bears more similarities to Asian languages than it does to English
What Auslan is not
Auslan is not:
- a visual representation of the English language; a sign does not represent an English word
- English “on the hands”; it does not have the same grammar and structure as English
- international or universal; in Australia, there are actually two distinct dialects of Auslan
As with all languages, Auslan is constantly evolving and adapting to the changing environment as well as the changing needs of the language users. No language is static. If you reflect on English in the early 20th century, there were no such words as “television”, “email” or “space shuttle” in common use. Indeed, there was not even really any concept of such things as they had yet to be devised. When they did enter the sphere of our experience, we then created – in a process best understood by linguists – the words we use for them.
So, too, it is for Auslan. As a need presents itself for a lexical item (sign) to represent a concept, a sign is then created just as a word is created in spoken languages. But like all languages, Auslan can talk about a concept for which a lexical item does not exist. This is done by using existing language to explain the concept. So, before we had the word “television” in English, people may well have referred to it as “the box with moving pictures”.
All this is potentially very relevant in your classroom as it is possible that there will be English words in some subject-specific areas for which no Auslan sign has yet been developed. This will mean that both your deaf student and the interpreter(s) will need to talk about the concept without the benefit of a formalised sign or collection of signs.