1.3 Auslan


Welcome and learn all about Auslan!

Auslan is the name coined by the Australian Deaf community for their distinctive sign language.  Auslan is a true, natural, and fully accessible visual-spatial language that deaf people use to communicate. It is in a different modality to English (an aural-oral linear language) and has its own grammar, structures, and vocabulary that have evolved over time, though usage by  the Deaf community. In short, Auslan is not ‘English on hands’.

Auslan vocabulary is made up of signs, showing exact handshapes, orientation of palms, movements and locations and supported with non-manual features (facial expression, mouthing, head, body, and eye movements). Those signs are created in the signing space that provides in-depth grammatical information through placement and connections between prior and following signs. The signs can be either simple or complex depending on their use of timelines, modifications, and locations in space, and they are bound together by sentence structures which are influenced by the context, content, and audience.

While Auslan is the main sign language used in Australia by the Deaf community, within the community, there are subsets of people who use other sign languages, such as various First Nations’, Australian Irish, and more.  There is also the tactile sign language that Deafblind people use to communicate, which can be viewed as a variation of Auslan with a bodily-tactile modality.

Auslan originated as a distinctive sign language as far back as the 1840s, starting as a mixture of home-created signs, British and Irish Sign Languages, and possibly some Aboriginal signs. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that it became a consistent sign language used by deaf people around Australia. Auslan is one of the 300+ recognised sign languages around the world and is nothing like American Sign Language (ASL) or Japanese Sign Language (JSL).

Like other sign languages around the world, Auslan and its community of users have had to resist efforts at suppression by non-deaf medical and education professionals acting under the misguided belief that use of sign language inhibited spoken language ability in deaf people.  Such suppression has actually exacerbated the prevalence of language deprivation in deaf children. Auslan has also had to survive the corruptive influence of artificial signing systems such as Signed English being given precedence over Auslan in educational settings.  Such systems were devised by non-deaf education professionals, theorising that they would improve literacy for deaf children.  In fact, such theories misunderstand the way authentic visual-spatial sign languages work, and the reason they have naturally evolved in every deaf community in history.

Despite the forced influences and oppression, Auslan continued to thrive, albeit with the number of Auslan users somewhat diminished as a result. Lately, many deaf adults have ‘discovered’ Auslan after they have left school and learnt it as second language, with a small proportion of deaf children who have deaf parents being privileged to have access to Auslan from birth.

There are many means to learn Auslan, however it is highly recommended that one learns from a native and fluent Auslan user.

Here you will see the snapshot of Auslan itself and its users, and Deaf Australia’s position paper on Auslan.

Visual description

Deaf interpreter has white curly hair and is wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt. She is signing in a professional and informative manner towards the camera.

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