Spreading the word about Sign Language

Although NZ Sign Language has been one of the country’s three official languages since 2006, it is still a new concept to the general population and many misunderstandings are still prevalent.

That is something that social enterprise NZ Merge was set up two years ago to address, by promoting and supporting the use of NZ Sign Language, including providing classes in local communities and online.

Next month Merge will provide NZ Sign Language classes locally, at Orewa College – it’s the first time they have been offered on the Hibiscus Coast and came about by public demand.

Merge co-director Jaime Brown says around 440,000 people in New Zealand identify as having hearing loss and 9000-10,000 identify as deaf. Around 24,000 people use NZ Sign Language, according to Statistics NZ figures.

Jaime says the language was banned from the 1880s-1970s in the education system. “The thinking at the time was that the oral method – speaking and lip reading – was the way to go and that Sign Language might delay a child’s ability to learn English,” she says. “In fact research shows that NZ Sign Language improves deaf children’s ability to learn English.”

Although there is no longer a ban, Jaime says that the use of NZ Sign Language is still not common in schools. She says learning it would be of huge benefit not only to people such as teachers and teacher aides but also to health professionals, and business people – especially in customer-facing roles such as retail or banks.

She says in particular it’s a shame that more audiologists and their staff don’t know the language. “Many deaf people struggle to communicate with their hearing specialists during appointments as a result,” she says.

Jaime learned NZ Sign Language 13 years ago when she attended a night class, out of general interest. From there she got involved with the deaf community and met her husband, who is deaf.
The beginner’s course coming to Orewa College is designed for those aged 12 years and older. It covers basic conversational Sign Language such as introductions, asking questions and sharing information.

This level of understanding alone would be hugely beneficial, Jaime says. “The world is designed for hearing people. If everyone just knew a little Sign Language – even how to say ‘hi, how are you’, it would be on a par with New Zealand’s other official languages. The idea is to normalise it.”

She says it can be really fun to learn because it’s visual and involves facial expressions.

The classes are in the evening, starting on Monday, July 23 and running for 15 weeks (Terms 3 and 4). Numbers are limited to 20. Info: www.mergenz.co.nz or phone 021 077 1584.