A beginner’s guide to incorporating New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL)

A beginner’s guide to incorporating New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL)

How much are the deaf community missing out on in your organisation?

At Te Papa we already include NZSL in some of our museum experiences, but we know we can always do more.

We invited Victoria and Shannon from Deaf Aotearoa to speak to us about why using NZSL is so important and how best to make effective use of it.

Two ladies using sign language in front of a group
Victoria (left), Shannon (right), 2018. Te Papa

Why is NZSL important in a museum context?

Shannon: NZSL is an official language of New Zealand, and therefore should be included in the national museum.

Lots of deaf people love visiting museums, but often they don’t get the full picture.

We really want to take in everything – all the information about the exhibitions – but not everything is accessible. For example everywhere audio is used.

I was told that in the Gallipoli exhibition there is the sound of gunshots, and audio of people reading diary entries? I missed this and it’s important that we feel included in all the information.

Visitors explore the Gallipoli exhibition
Visitors explore the Gallipoli exhibition, 2015. Photo by Norm Heke. Te Papa

How can we communicate sounds?

Victoria: There’s lots of ways you can do it – and there are more ways than just having a person signing. Videos can be very creative, the background could relate to people firing guns, you can caption the sound so you can just say there is the sound of gunfire in the background, etc.

Are subtitles just as helpful as NZSL?

Victoria: Unfortunately not, because written English is like a second language for many deaf people.

To put this into context – those who can hear, they’re probably confident having conversations in English, and accessing that written language.

But for deaf people, because it’s like a second language, they can miss out and often can’t access the full information from written text. Many deaf people fall in that category and gain full access to information through NZSL.

Many deaf people have difficulty understanding written English as a result of a lifetime of poor access to education and some members of the deaf community have a lower than average English reading age because of this.

The first and preferred language for people in the deaf community is NZSL, that’s the language by which they access information in the world.

How different is NZSL from English?

Victoria: NZSL has a very different grammar and structure from English.

For example, in sign language time (tense) and subjects are established early, and questions (what, where, how, etc.) are placed at the end of sentences. This results in a small time lag when working through an interpreter. Interpreters need to take in a whole chunk of information before they can begin interpreting. This is the same whether working from English to NZSL, or NZSL to English.

If an organisation wants to interpret information into NZSL, we need an in-depth discussion beforehand, because you can’t just take the text and translate it in exactly the same way word for word. That’s because that information was designed for people who can hear and who have had a lifetime of accessing information all around them.

Many deaf people have had little access to information throughout their lives. Translating written public information for deaf people sometimes requires the addition of background information or filling information gaps in order to support full access.

Is NZSL related to sign languages in other countries?

Shannon: NZSL is unique to New Zealand, but it’s closely related to Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

There are many sign languages across the world, and they all differ. As grammar is different across countries in the spoken word, the grammar of sign language is also different from other sign languages. For example, in Australia their sign language uses far more fingerspelling (individually spelling out words using the sign language alphabet) compared with New Zealand Sign Language.

Victoria: I’ve had people come up to me saying they learnt sign language with their babies/children via online links,  but it turns out to be American sign language. In New Zealand we use and promote New Zealand Sign Language, which is an official language of New Zealand.

Could we use International Sign Language?

Shannon: The International Sign System was instigated by the World Federation of the Deaf for the sole purpose of using it when large international gatherings of deaf people come together, such as at the World Federation of the Deaf congress and conferences.

Because each country has their own unique sign language, International Sign System is like a pidgin sign language, it’s not like a fully expressive language as each countries native sign language is.

So that’s the reason why we can’t all just use international sign language, because what could be conveyed would be very limited.

And when people ask, ‘Why isn’t their just one sign language for the world?’ the best answer is the question, ‘Why isn’t their one spoken language for the world?!’.

Is there a separate Māori sign language?

Victoria: No there isn’t, because NZSL is not connected to, or derived from, either English or Māori.

NZSL can be interpreted or translated into Māori and Māori can be translated/interpreted into NZSL.

There are signs in NZSL that express Māori concepts. For example having a hāngi, kaumātua, marae, aroha… and that vocabulary is expanding all the time – but it’s vocabulary that’s used within the structure of sign language.

Here’s a useful link to Vic Uni’s explanation of NZSL and why there is no Māori sign language.

Is automatic NZSL translation on the horizon?

Victoria: I don’t think we can expect automatic translation from English text to a signing avatar and vice-versa anytime soon  – it will take years until that technology is perfected.

I know companies such as Microsoft have invested a lot of money in a project like this but the technological capabilities to interpret the many, complex and intricate nuances of sign language is still in its infancy.

As NZSL is a visual language, one very small movement in the face or the hands can change the meaning by a degree or by a lot, and can depend on the extent of a combination of movements and expressions. So for example if I sign, ‘It’s raining tomorrow’, and whether my eyebrows are raised or whether I move my torso and shoulders forward slightly it changes it from a question to a statement.

We have a long way to go yet – so I don’t think it’s a possibility in the near future.

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