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Australian Sign Language
Native to Australia
Native speakers
9,700 (2011 census)[1]
  • Auslan
Northern dialect (NSW, QLD)
Victorian dialect and South-Eastern dialect (all other states)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 asf
Glottolog aust1271[2]

Auslan /ˈɒz læn/ is the sign language of the Australian Deaf community. The term Auslan is an acronym of "Australian Sign Language", coined by Trevor Johnston in the early 1980s,[3] although the language itself is much older. Auslan is related to British Sign Language (BSL) and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL); the three have descended from the same parent language, and together comprise the BANZSL language family. Auslan has also been influenced by Irish Sign Language (ISL) and more recently has borrowed signs from American Sign Language (ASL).

As with other sign languages, Auslan's grammar and vocabulary is quite distinct from English. Its development cannot be attributed to any individual; rather, it is a natural language that developed organically over time.[4]

The number of people for whom Auslan is their primary or preferred language is very difficult to determine. According to the 2001, 2006 and 2011 Censuses published by Australian Bureau of Statistics, the population of Auslan users in Australia have increased by 54.57% [5] thus debunking the speculation that Auslan is an endangered language. As of 2011, the Census population of Auslan users in Australia is 9723 - an increase of 4417 new users from the 2001 Census. Based on this statistical trajectory, it is expected that the number of people for whom Auslan is their primary or preferred language could exceed 12000 in the 2016 Census. Although the number is increasing, approximately 5% of all Auslan users acquiring the language from their parents with the rest learning the language from other peers such as friends or colleagues later in life.

On 25 January 2015, the Young Australian of the Year was announced, Drisana Levitzke-Gray. She is a strong proponent of Auslan and, in her acceptance speech, called on the Government of Australia and Australians, to learn and use Auslan as a natural language, as a human right for Australians.

Recognition and status

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[6] and 1991.[7] However, this recognition is yet to filter through to many institutions, government departments and professionals who work with Deaf people.[citation needed]

The emerging status of Auslan has gone hand-in-hand with the advancement of the Deaf community in Australia, beginning in the early 1980s. In 1982, the registration of the first sign language interpreters by NAATI,[8] a newly established regulatory body for interpreting and translating, accorded a sense of legitimacy to Auslan, furthered by the publishing of the first dictionary of Auslan in 1989. Auslan began to emerge as a language of instruction for Deaf students in secondary schools in the 1990s — mainly through the provision of interpreters in mainstream (hearing) schools with deaf support units. Boosted by the 1992 enactment of the federal Disability Discrimination Act, sign language interpreters are also increasingly provided in tertiary education.

Today there is a growing number of courses teaching Auslan as a second language, from an elective language subject offered by some secondary schools to a two-year full-time diploma at TAFE.

Though becoming more and more visible, Auslan is still rarely seen at public events or on television; there are, for example, no interpreted news services. There is a regular program on community television station Channel 31 in Melbourne, "Deaf TV", which is entirely in Auslan and is produced by Deaf volunteers.

Young Australian of the Year for 2015

The Young Australian of the Year for 2015, Drisana Levitzke-Gray, is a strong proponent of Auslan and, in her acceptance speech using Auslan, called on the Government of Australia and Australians, to learn and use Auslan as a natural language, as a human right for Australians.[9]


File:Thomas Pattison.jpg
Thomas Pattison, early Deaf educator.

Auslan evolved from sign languages brought to Australia during the nineteenth century from Britain and Ireland. The earliest record of a deaf Australian was convict Elizabeth Steel, who arrived in 1790 on the Second Fleet ship "Lady Juliana".[10] There is as yet no historical evidence, however, that she used a sign language. The first known signing Deaf immigrant was the engraver John Carmichael[11] who arrived in Sydney in 1825 from Edinburgh. He had been to a Deaf school there, and was known as a good storyteller in sign language.

Thirty-five years later, in 1860, a school for the Deaf was established by another Deaf Scotsman, Thomas Pattison — the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children in New South Wales. In Victoria just a few weeks later, the Victorian College for the Deaf was founded by a Deaf Englishman, Frederick J Rose, who had been educated at the Old Kent Road School in London. These schools and others had an enormous role in the development of Auslan, as they were the first contact with sign language for many Deaf children. Because they were residential boarding schools, they provided ample opportunity for the language to thrive, even though in many schools, signing was banned from the classroom for much of the 20th century.

Irish Sign Language (ISL) also had an influence on the development of Auslan, as it was used in Catholic schools until the 1950s. The first Catholic school for Deaf children was established in 1875 by Irish nuns. Unlike British Sign Language, ISL uses a one-handed alphabet originating in French Sign Language (LSF), and although this alphabet has now almost disappeared from Australia, some initialised signs from the Irish alphabet can still be seen.

In more recent times Auslan has seen a significant amount of lexical borrowing from American Sign Language (ASL), especially in signs for technical terms. Some of these arose from the signed English educational philosophies of the 1970s and 80s, when a committee looking for signs with direct equivalence to English words found them in ASL and/or in invented English-based signed systems used in North America and introduced them in the classroom. ASL contains many signs initialised from an alphabet which was also derived from LSF, and Auslan users, already familiar with the related ISL alphabet, accepted many of the new signs easily.

Auslan in relation to English

It is sometimes wrongly assumed that English-speaking countries share a sign language. Auslan is a natural language distinct from spoken or written English. Its grammar and vocabulary often do not have direct English equivalents and vice versa. However, English, as the dominant language in Australia, has had a significant influence on Auslan, especially through manual forms such as fingerspelling and (more recently) Signed English.

It is difficult to sign Auslan fluently while speaking English, as the word order is different, and there is often no direct sign-to-word equivalence. However, mouthing of an English word together with a sign may serve to clarify when one sign may have several English equivalents. In some cases the mouth gesture that accompanies a sign may not reflect the equivalent translation in English (e.g. a sign meaning 'thick' may be accompanied by a mouthed 'fahth').


A chart showing the two handed manual alphabet as used in British Sign Language, Australia Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language

A two-handed manual alphabet, identical to the one used in British Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language, is integral to Auslan. This alphabet is used for fingerspelling proper nouns such as personal or place names, common nouns for everyday objects, and English words, especially technical terms, for which there is no widely used sign. Fingerspelling can also be used for emphasis, clarification, or, sometimes extensively, by English-speaking learners of Auslan. The amount of fingerspelling varies with the context and the age of the signer. A recent small-scale study puts fingerspelled words in Auslan conversations at about 10% of all lexical items, roughly equal to ASL and higher than many other sign languages, such as New Zealand Sign Language.[12] The proportion is higher in older signers, suggesting that the use of fingerspelling has diminished over time.

Schembri and Johnston (in press)[12] found that the most commonly fingerspelled words in Auslan include "so", "to", "if" and "but" and "do".

Some signs also feature an English word's initial letter as a handshape from a one- or two-handed manual alphabet and use it within a sign. For example, part of the sign for "Canberra" incorporates the letter "C".

Signed English

See main article Signed English

Australasian Signed English was created in the late 1970s to represent English words and grammar, using mostly Auslan signs together with some additional contrived signs, as well as borrowings from American Sign Language (ASL). It was, and still is, used largely in education for teaching English to Deaf children or for discussing English in academic contexts. It was thought to be much easier for hearing teachers and parents to learn another mode of English than to learn a new language with a complex spatial grammar such as Auslan.

The use of Signed English in schools is controversial with some in the Deaf community, who regard Signed English as a contrived and unnatural artificially constructed language. Signed English has now been largely rejected by Deaf communities in Australia and its use in education is dwindling; however a number of its signs have made their way into normal use.

Acquisition and nativeness

Unlike oral languages, only a minority of Deaf children acquire their language from their parents (about 4 or 5% have Deaf parents[13]). Most acquire Auslan from Deaf peers at school or later through Deaf community networks. Many learn Auslan as a 'delayed' first language in adolescence or adulthood, after attempting to learn English (or another spoken/written language) without the exposure necessary to properly acquire it. The Deaf community often distinguish between "oral deaf" who grew up in an oral or signed English educational environment without Auslan, and those "Deaf Deaf" who learnt Auslan at an early age from Deaf parents or at a Deaf school. Regardless of their background, many Deaf adults consider Auslan to be their first or primary language, and see themselves as users of English as a second language.

Variation and standardisation

Auslan exhibits a high degree of variation, determined by the signer's age, educational background and regional origin, and the signing community is very tolerant of individual differences in signing style.

There is no standard dialect of Auslan. Standard dialects arise through the support of institutions, such as the media, education, government and the law. As this support has not existed for most sign languages, coupled with the lack of a widely used written form and communications technologies, Auslan has diverged much more rapidly than Australian English.

Auslan was introduced to Papua New Guinea, where it mixed with local or home sign and Tok Pisin to produce Papua New Guinean Sign Language.


Linguists often regard Auslan as having two major dialects - Northern (Queensland and New South Wales), and Southern (Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia). The vocabulary of the two dialects differs significantly, with different signs used even for very common concepts such as colours, animals, and days of the week; differences in grammar appear to be slight.

These two dialects may have roots in older dialectic differences from the United Kingdom, brought over by Deaf immigrants who founded the first schools for the Deaf in Australia — English varieties (from London) in Melbourne and Scottish ones (from Edinburgh) in Sydney, although the relationship between lexical variation in the UK and Australia appears much more complicated than this (some Auslan signs appear similar to signs used in the Newcastle variety of BSL, for example). Before schools were established elsewhere, Deaf children attended one of these two initial schools, and brought signs back to their own states. As schools opened up in each state, new signs also developed in the dormitories and playgrounds of these institutions. As a result, Auslan users can identify more precise regional varieties (e.g., "Sydney sign", "Melbourne sign", "Perth sign", "Adelaide sign" and "Brisbane sign"). In a conversation between two strangers, one from Melbourne and the other from Perth, it is likely that one will use a small number of signs unfamiliar to the other, despite both belonging to the same "southern dialect". Signers can often identify which school someone went to, even within a few short utterances.

Despite these differences, communication between Auslan users from different regions poses little difficulty for most Deaf Australians, who often become aware of different regional vocabulary as they grow older, through travel and Deaf community networks, and because Deaf people are so well practised in bridging barriers to communication.

Indigenous Australian sign languages and Auslan

See main article: Australian Aboriginal sign languages.

A number of Indigenous Australian sign languages exist, unrelated to Auslan, such as Warlpiri Sign Language. They occur in the southern, central, and western desert regions, coastal Arnhem Land, some islands of north coast, the western side of Cape York Peninsula, and on some Torres Strait Islands. They have also been noted as far south as the Murray River.

Deaf Indigenous people of Far North Queensland (extending from Yarrabah to Cape York) form a distinct signing community using a dialect of Auslan;[14] it has features of indigenous sign languages and gestural systems as well as signs and grammar of Auslan.

Written and recorded Auslan

Auslan has no widely used written form; transcribing Auslan in the past was largely an academic exercise. The first Auslan dictionaries used either photographs or drawings with motion arrows to describe signs; more recently, technology has made possible the use of short video clips on CD-ROM or online dictionaries.

SignWriting, however, has its adherents in Australia.[15]

See also


  1. Auslan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Australian Sign Language". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "What is Auslan". Deaf Australia Inc. Retrieved 10 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Bellis, Mary (2004). "Innovations for the Hearing Impaired".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). "The distribution of Victorian sign language users" (PDF). Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 2016-03-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Lo Bianco, Joseph (1987). National Policy on Languages. Canberra : Australian Government Publishing Service. ISBN 0-644-06118-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Dawkins, John (1991). Australia's language : the Australian language and literacy policy. Canberra : Australian Government Publishing Service. ISBN 0-644-14972-8. It is now increasingly recognised that signing deaf people constitute a group like any other non-English speaking language group in Australia, with a distinct sub-culture recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity, united and symbolised by fluency in Auslan, the principal means of communication within the Australian Deaf Community (Page 20)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Flynn, John W. (2001). "A Brief History of Sign Language Interpreting in Australia". Australian Sign Language Interpreters' Association Victoria.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Australian of the Year: Rosie Batty awarded top honour for efforts to stop family violence: Women awarded top four honours for first time, ABC News Online, 25 January 2015
  10. Branson, Jan; Miller, Don (1995). The story of Betty Steel: deaf convict and pioneer. Australia's deaf heritage. 1. Deafness Resources Australia. ISBN 0-646-21735-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Schembri, A.; Napier, J.; Beattie; Leigh, G. R.; Carty, B. (22–23 August 1998). "John Carmichael: Australian Deaf pioneer". Australasian Deaf Studies Research Symposium: Conference papers. North Rocks, Sydney, Australia: Renwick College: 9–20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  13. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  14. O'Reilly, Suzannah (2006). Indigenous sign language and culture : the interpreting and access needs of deaf people who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in far north Queensland. Sponsored by ASLIA, the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "SignPuddle Australian Dictionary".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Other references

Further reading

  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnston, T.A. & Wilkin, P. (1998). Signs of Australia : A new dictionary of Auslan (the sign language of the Australian Deaf community). North Rocks, NSW, Australia : North Rocks Press : Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).

External links