New Zealand Sign Language
is the main language of the deaf community
in New Zealand
. It became an official language
of New Zealand in April 2006, alongside Māori
New Zealand Sign Language has its roots in British Sign Language (BSL), and may be technically considered a dialect of British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL). There are 62.5% similarities found in British Sign Language and NZSL, compared with 33% of NZSL signs found in American Sign Language.
Like other natural sign languages, it was devised by and for Deaf people, with no linguistic connection to a spoken or written language, and it is fully capable of expressing anything a fluent signer wants to say.
It uses the same two-handed manual alphabet as British Sign Language and Auslan, Australian Sign Language.
It uses more lip-patterns in conjunction with hand and facial movement to cue signs than BSL, reflecting New Zealand's history of oralist education of Deaf people. Its vocabulary includes Māori concepts such as marae and tangi, and signs for New Zealand placenames. (E.g Rotorua - mudpools, Wellington - windy breeze, Auckland - Sky Tower, Christchurch - 2 Cs, represents ChCh.)
The first non-Polynesian immigrants to New Zealand were from Britain, and those who were Deaf brought British Sign Language
with them. The first known teacher of sign language was Dorcas Mitchell, who taught the children of one family in Charteris Bay, Lyttelton Harbour
, from 1868 to 1877. By 1877 she had taught 42 pupils. When the first school for the Deaf (then called the Sumner Deaf and Dumb
Institution) was opened at Sumner, south east of Christchurch in 1878, she applied unsuccessfully for the position of principal. Instead it went to Gerrit Van Asch, who agreed with the Milan congress of deaf educators of 1880 (to which no Deaf people were invited) that teaching should be oral only, and that sign language should be forbidden. (He would not even admit pupils who could sign, so only 14 were admitted.) This was the policy of the school until 1979. A documentary film
about the school made in the 1950s makes no mention of sign language. Similar policies were maintained at the schools at Titirangi and Kelston that opened in 1940 and 1958. Unsurprisingly, the children used sign language secretly and after leaving school, developing NZSL out of British Sign Language largely without adult intervention for over 100 years. The main haven for NZSL was the Deaf Clubs in the main centres. In 1979, "Total Communication" (a "use anything that works" philosophy) was adopted at the Sumner School, but the signing it used was "Australasian Sign Language" an artificial signed form of English
. As a result, younger signers use a number of Australasian signs in their NZSL, to such an extent that some call traditional NZSL "Old Sign". NZSL was adopted for teaching in 1994.
In 1985, Marianne Ahlgren proved in her PhD thesis at Victoria University of Wellington that NZSL is a fully-fledged
language, with a large vocabulary of signs and a consistent grammar of space.
The NZ Sign Language Tutors' Association (NZSLTA) was set up in 1992. Over the next few years adult education classes in NZSL began in several centres. In 1997 a Deaf Studies course was started at Victoria University of Wellington.
An important step toward the recognition of NZSL was the publication in 1998 of a comprehensive NZSL dictionary by Victoria University of Wellington and the Deaf Association of NZ. It contains some 4000 signs (which correspond to many more meanings than the same number of English words, because of the way signs can be modulated in space and time), sorted by handshape, not English meaning, and coded in the Hamburg Notational System, HamNoSys, as well as pictorially.
For some years, TVNZ broadcast a weekly news programme, "News Review", interpreted in NZSL. This was discontinued in 1993 after a joint survey of Deaf and hearing-impaired people found a majority favoured captioned programmes. Many Deaf people felt they had been misled by the survey. There has been no regular programming in NZSL since.
Official language status
In New Zealand, English is a national language, but has never been recognised as an official language. NZSL became the second official language of New Zealand in April 2006, joining Māori. The parliamentary bill to approve this passed its third reading
on April 6 2006
. At the first reading in Parliament, on June 22
, the bill was supported by all political parties. It was referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee, which reported back to the House on July 18
. The second reading passed 119 to 2 on February 23
with only the ACT
party opposing because the government is not providing funding for NZSL. It passed the third reading on April 6
with the same margin.
The bill received Royal Assent, a constitutional formality, on 10 April 2006. New Zealand Sign Language became an official language of New Zealand the day after Royal Assent.
The use of NZSL as a valid medium of instruction has not always been accepted by the Government, the Association of Teachers of the Deaf, or many parents. However, in light of much research into its validity as a language and much advocacy by deaf adults, parents of deaf children (both hearing and deaf) and educationalists, NZSL has since become — in tandem with English — part of the bilingual/bicultural approach used in public schools (including Kelston Deaf Education Centre and Van Asch Deaf Education Centre) since 1994. Victoria University of Wellington has courses in New Zealand Sign Language, although it has yet to develop a major program for it. AUT teaches a diploma course for NZSL interpreting.
Differences in lexicon in New Zealand Sign Language have largely developed through the student communities surrounding four schools for the deaf in New Zealand: