As a native user of Auslan, and as an advocate for the language and for the Deaf community, I am thrilled to see a national curriculum in Auslan come to fruition. For the first time, deaf children will have access to a formal first language learner pathway for acquiring Auslan, acknowledging their status and strengths as visual learners and offering a ‘Deaf gain’ perspective to their lives. In turn, the second language learner pathway provides unparalleled opportunities for hearing children to access and use Auslan in their schools and in society, reducing barriers for participation and increasing equality in the wider community. Children learning Auslan in schools have the potential to fundamentally change the social fabric of Australia.

Drisana Levitzke-Gray, Deaf advocate and Young Australian of the Year (2015)

Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the language of the Deaf1 community of Australia and is descended from British Sign Language (BSL). Auslan and other signed languages around the world are fully-fledged languages that are visual-gestural in nature. They have a complete set of linguistic structures and are complex and highly nuanced.

Signed languages evolve naturally in Deaf communities in which signers use mutually agreed signs and ways of ordering them to communicate with each other. Signed languages have their own grammar and lexicon which are not based on the spoken language of the country or region although they are influenced by them.

Signed languages fulfil the same functions as spoken languages in meeting the communicative, cognitive and social needs of a group of human beings. However, the modalities of a visual-gestural language like Auslan and those of an aural-oral language like English are markedly different. Although signed and spoken languages share many linguistic principles, the visual-gestural modality results in some unique features of signed languages not found in spoken languages.

There are many different signed languages around the world, some of which can be grouped into ‘language families’. Auslan belongs to the BSL family, which includes the contemporary British, Australian and New Zealand sign languages, which all share a similar lexicon and grammar. Auslan can be traced back to the arrival of Europeans in Australia in the late 1700s, with BSL users arriving in Australia as convicts and as free settlers. Although now considered a relatively young language in its own right, the ancestral link Auslan shares with BSL gives it historical context as a member of one of the longest continuing signed language families in the world.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share the oldest surviving cultures and languages in the world. These developed independently on the Australian continent, predating by vast periods of time the relatively recent arrival of Europeans and the subsequent development of Auslan. The signed languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures vary greatly from one another and are quite different from Auslan in that they are largely used as gestural-visual representations, or substitutions, of the associated spoken languages. However, in some contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, deaf people have developed signed languages for independent use – for example, Yolngu Sign Language from the Northern Territory – but there has been limited research on these. In other communities, Auslan may co-exist alongside local signed languages.

Recognition of Auslan

The Deaf community has a rich history and culture; however, the signed languages of deaf people have not always been recognised as legitimate languages. Due in part to the modality of signed languages, they have often been inaccurately viewed as a form of pantomime or as a manual representation of ‘broken English’, incapable of the same kind of sophistication as spoken languages. As a result of such misunderstanding, signed languages like Auslan have historically been discouraged from widespread use in educational settings. Educational policies, fuelled by resolutions from a conference on the education of deaf children in Milan, Italy, in 1880, led to the prohibition of signed languages in schools in many countries for a considerable period of time, effectively marginalising Deaf communities and oppressing signed languages.

A language is considered legitimate by many when it has a widely accepted or standardised orthographic writing system; because none exists for Auslan, the Deaf community has been hindered in its attempts to capture and record its language in an effort to legitimise it. Although there are recently developed ‘sign writing’ or ‘gloss’ systems that sign linguists, teachers and researchers have developed to record and document signs, Auslan has no written form in the traditionally understood sense.

The United States of America is widely acknowledged for pioneering signed language research and formal development of signed language teaching programs, resulting in the first academic recognition of signed languages as meaningful and complete languages. Starting in the 1960s, the first sign linguistics research is credited to William Stokoe. The United Kingdom and parts of Europe followed suit in the 1970s, and Australia a little later in the 1980s. Auslan was first officially recognised as a legitimate language by the Australian Government in 1987 in a white paper on the languages of Australia (Lo Bianco, J, 1987).

Recent developments in digital recording and software for time-aligned multimedia annotations have allowed for improved documentation and analysis of much larger data sets of signed languages. These tools allow Auslan data, and the rich culture of Australian deaf people, to be captured and recorded in various ways. As a result, linguists, in consultation with the Deaf community, are increasingly conducting research on signed languages and encouraging the documentation of Auslan and other signed languages.

Societal attitudes have changed towards Auslan and towards deaf people. As usage has been documented, scholarly research published and dictionaries developed, policies now legitimise the use of Auslan, and interest has grown in teaching and learning the language in formal educational settings. Recognition of Auslan in the Australian Curriculum has significant historic value, and is to be celebrated.

The place of Auslan in Australian education

The use of Auslan for deaf children in Australian schools has been varied and inconsistent.

However, the recognition and improved status of the language in recent years has changed the educational landscape for deaf children. The move from segregated school settings for deaf children to mainstream school environments has influenced community and education sector interest in Auslan in recent years due to increased visibility of Auslan in school communities. Auslan has been increasingly embraced in many more mainstream school settings where deaf students may be placed.

In addition, between 1980 and 1990, many civil and political events around the world altered the circumstances of the Australian Deaf community. Advocacy by various groups, including deaf people, brought about legislative and social change in Australia, including the Disability Discrimination Act in 1992, as well as Acts regarding telecommunications access and television captioning.

Official government recognition of Auslan as a community language, and the implementation of relevant education and employment legislation arising from the aforementioned advocacy, have led to changes in society that have empowered deaf people to take up further studies and to enter previously inaccessible occupations. These shifts have also had an immeasurable impact on the perception of Auslan in the wider community, with increased enrolment of second language learners in tertiary-level Auslan classes for adults, and the establishment of Auslan interpreter training programs nationwide since 1986.

The availability and increased profile of Auslan as a language of formal study in primary and secondary schools for second language learners has, however, been less rapid or less well supported systemically in most states/territories of Australia. Historically, schools that have provided some form of teaching and learning in Auslan have offered informal lunchtime or hobby/interest classes rather than formal courses of study included in a school timetable alongside spoken languages and other subjects.

Victoria has been a leading exception in this regard; Auslan has been taught in a number of schools for many years, and a curriculum has been available at Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) level since 1994. Other states have followed suit over time, with Auslan now formally available in several schools in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. A national agreement via the Collaborative Curriculum and Assessment Framework for Languages (CCAFL) exists for the formal study of Auslan in Year 11 and Year 12. This national syllabus was developed in Victoria under the auspices of CCAFL in 2002 and is available for endorsed use by each state and territory authority. There has been a demand to adopt this syllabus in an increasing number of states in recent years, with Auslan of growing interest to learners as a subject contributing to their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) or Overall Position score for university entrance.

Inconsistency across Australia in the provision of formal Auslan teaching for second language learners in schools from F–10, and the absence to date of any first language learner Auslan curriculum, means that this dual-pathway national curriculum for Auslan is groundbreaking. It systematises provision in Australian schools, serving both deaf and hearing student populations and rightfully acknowledging the place of Auslan and the culture of the Deaf community in Australian society. It offers access to the formal study of Auslan to deaf children through a first language learner pathway and to students interested in learning it as an additional language through a second language learner pathway.

When I was a school student, we were punished for using our sign language. I remember writing 100 times: 'I must not sign'. It makes me so happy to see that young people today are encouraged to learn Auslan, and to be proud of it.

Nola Colefax, OAM, Deaf elder

1. In referring to deaf people who belong to a linguistic and cultural minority known as the Deaf community, the ‘D’ may be capitalised in reference to the individual, the culture or the group to accord respect and deference, for example, Deaf teacher. This is similar to being referred to as Aboriginal people, or members of the Macedonian community living in Australia. When referring simply to audiological status of a group, for example, deaf children, the lower case ‘d’ as in ‘deaf’ is the more common usage.