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What is Auslan?
Auslan is the sign language of the Australian Deaf community. The name Auslan (from Australian sign language) was coined by Trevor Johnston, author of the first Auslan dictionary, in the early 1980s but the language itself is much older.
The name is written as Auslan, not AUSLAN.
Auslan has evolved from the sign languages brought to Australia during the nineteenth century from Britain and Ireland. Its grammar and vocabulary is different from English. It is not the creation of any one person. It is a natural language that has developed over time.
Auslan is the primary or preferred language of the majority of Deaf people who have been severely or profoundly deaf since early childhood.
It is the native language (i.e., the language acquired from birth) of only a minority of Deaf signers. Deaf children who are born to Deaf parents who use Auslan appear to acquire Auslan in the same way as hearing children acquire spoken language from their parents and other family members.
However, for most adults in the Deaf community, Auslan is acquired either as a (possibly delayed) first language at some time during their school years, or as a second language in later life.
Thus an important difference between Deaf communities and other linguistic minorities is that, in most cases, the language is not passed on from parent to child, but often from child to child, or is learned by children from adults outside the family. Some Deaf people also learn Auslan as a late-acquired language in early adulthood.
Auslan was recognised by the Australian government as a “community language other than English” and the preferred language of the Deaf community in policy statements in 1987 and 1991.
Auslan exists in a complex linguistic environment and there are different forms of signing which are used in different social situations. However, not all of the signing behaviour that one may observe individuals engaging in is properly characterised as “Auslan”. Rather, several distinct varieties of signed languages exist within the community.
Natural sign language – Auslan
Deaf people in Deaf communities use signed languages which (a) are not identical to the majority spoken language of the majority hearing community, and (b) are not identical to the signed languages of other Deaf communities. Auslan is the name given to the natural sign language (or native sign language) of the Australian Deaf community. Signed languages, including Auslan, fulfil all the criteria of a natural language.
Like other minority languages in the Australian community, it is impossible for users of Auslan to avoid contact with English, the majority language of the country. Consequently there are several distinct types of English-influenced signing behaviour, as identified below.
Artificial sign systems – Signed English
An artificial sign system is developed with the specific purpose of representing the vocabulary and grammar of spoken languages using manual signs. They have generally been created by educators in order to increase deaf children’s exposure to spoken language by making it visible. When using an artificial sign system, one makes a manual sign (or uses fingerspelling) for each word and word ending of the spoken language, almost as if signing were a type of writing. In most cases, this signing is presented simultaneously with the spoken message.
The sign system that educators introduced in Australia and New Zealand is a single, standardized system called Australasian Signed English, more often referred to as Signed English.
Unlike a natural language that grows naturally within the community that uses it, Signed English was devised by a committee in the 1970s as an exact representation of English in signed form. Although many of the signs are drawn from Auslan, the signs are standardized for specific English meanings. In some cases, this usage does not always reflect the sign’s original meaning in Auslan. (e.g., the sign for ‘checked pattern’ in Auslan is used for all meanings of the English word ‘check’; the sign for ‘light colour’ in Auslan is used for all meanings of the English word ‘light’.) These standardized signs were combined with invented signs (e.g., for ‘the’, ‘him’) that represent English determiners, pronouns, prepositions and other function words necessary to represent English grammar.
Studies have shown problems with the use of artificial sign systems. In Australia, Greg Leigh (1995) showed that while some pre-school teachers seem able to represent English accurately using Signed English in interactions with very young children, the greater linguistic demands of upper primary and secondary school education lead to much lower levels of accuracy in the simultaneous use of signed and spoken English. His study showed that less than 30 per cent of all utterances signed by secondary school teachers using Signed English were considered to be grammatically acceptable representations of English in signed form.
Signed English is not widely used in the Australian Deaf community, and overseas research has reported that deaf children in schools using an artificial sign system may not always use it to communicate with each other. The effect of Signed English on Auslan has not yet been researched but there is some evidence that it has had a significant impact on the Auslan lexicon, especially for younger Deaf signers who live in smaller communities outside the larger urban centres.
Fingerspelling is the use of hand configurations to represent the letters of a written alphabet.
It is regularly used as part of a natural sign system and in Auslan even as part of the native sign language.
The fingerspelling system widely used in Australia is the two-handed alphabet that has its origins in Britain.
Though fingerspelling is an important part of a signing Deaf person’s manual communication skills, virtually no signer uses fingerspelling exclusively to communicate.
Alone fingerspelling is a manual code for representing the letters of the English alphabet and is thus not a signed language in and of itself. Fingerspelling is generally mixed in with signing and is especially used for spelling nouns (place names, people’s names etc) or for spelling English words that have no direct signed equivalent. It also often occurs even when there is a perfectly adequate signed equivalent, perhaps to achieve some communicative effect (e.g., to emphasis some point, impress one’s audience, or to hide your meaning from an onlooking child etc).
There are also other complex ways of using Auslan:
Signing in English
There are situations where Auslan signers will use Auslan signs (with their Auslan meanings – e.g., different signs would be used for the English word ‘check’ according to the context) to sign something in English (e.g., a letter written in English or what a lawyer is saying in a court of law). Signing in English is a natural sign system that develops naturally and spontaneously within the signing community, and differs from contrived artificial sign systems such as Signed English.
Signing in English requires the signer and the audience to have a good understanding of both Auslan and English.
Signing Deaf communities are excellent examples of communities which are characterized by language contact because Deaf people always represent small minorities which are embedded within larger speaking and hearing communities. Whenever two or more speech communities come into contact there will inevitably be linguistic consequences, such as lexical borrowing. Language contact can also lead to the development of new varieties of language.
In Australia, Deaf people are constantly exposed to English, albeit imperfectly. Because of this, there exists a form of signing that ‘combines’ aspects of both Auslan and English.