Monday, October 20, 2008

Introduction to Auslan


This essay attempts to give a broad overview of the cultural milieu of the Australian Deaf community and the special role Auslan or Australian sign language plays in the development of cultural identity.

We begin by looking at two distinct views people have of the deaf society, the pathological and the cultural. We then attempt to paint a picture of Deaf society from an insider’s perspective. In doing so we will examine what has become known as the Big D and little d.

We conclude this essay by examining in a cornerstone of Deaf society in Australia, the language of Auslan. Naturally any overview of this sort can only be a cursory glance, a whistle stop tour picking up highlights along the way.

But why examine Auslan at this particular moment in history? What makes Deaf culture so fascinating to study?

Firstly Deaf culture is constantly changing and evolving, reinventing itself.

This is due in part to external changes such as the impact of technology, like the relative availability of cochlear implants. It is also due to internal factors such as the complexity of hearing loss. To most people someone is either hard of hearing or deaf, and there are very few shades of grey, but hearing loss can have its origin in a number of different ways, and the type of hearing loss and its impact differs widely. Those who are deaf understand Deaf culture differently from those who are hard of hearing or are included in the Deaf community by reason of shared language. This will be covered in some detail later in this essay.

The impact of new technology has also resulted in new ethical and legal challenges, such as the recent cases of Sandy Mcullough and Sharon Ducheneau who screened the donor families based on a pattern of deafness to increase the likelihood that they would have deaf offspring. Such debates have only further highlighted the different approaches take to understanding deafness.

Two views

The two primary views of the deaf are the pathological school and the cultural school. These are both significantly different in their approach and their outcomes.

The former emphasises the medical nature of hearing loss. It sees deafness as a negative, as a fall from perfection, and something to be overcome, where possible. Here the emphasis is on managing hearing loss and where possible rehabilitation.

The latter emphasises Deaf culture as a distinct identity, that is to say the individual identifies themselves as deaf. This group emphasises deafness positively. Here English is seen as the deaf persons’ second language and sign language and visual communication is encouraged. This approach, given its positive nature encourages a health self esteem. In short Deaf culture can be viewed as a minority culture based around a visual language.

Not every deaf person is part of Deaf culture.

“some deaf, deafened or hard of hearing people seek to adapt themselves to the hearing world and communicate through speech reading and using spoken language.”[1]

While Deaf Culture shares much common ground through language and experience, it is made more complex by the divergent nature of hearing loss. Not all hearing loss is the same, and individual’s responses and the timing of the onset of hearing loss may mean a very different response from individuals.

For example a child born deaf or developing a hearing loss early in there development will face significant barriers to communicating with others effectively, compared to someone who is losing their hearing towards middle or old age.

Some distinctives of deaf culture

Deaf cultural identity is based on characteristics which are identifiable and can be seen in other cultures and societies.

“The deaf culture has characteristics identifiable to hearing people. It has existed for a long time. The deaf community has characteristics identifiable to that of other ethnic groups or subcultures. It is born out of shared experience. The deaf community has its own organisations, events and arts. Deaf intra-marriage is common and there are also Deaf religious congregations. Perhaps the most essential link to Deaf culture among the American deaf community is its language.”[2]

Three characteristics bear witness to the identification of Deaf culture as a distinct and separate minority cultural group. The first is that it displays a capacity for shared meaning. There is some homogeneity, what linguists call synchronic tendencies in deaf culture and language.

Secondly, deaf people in Australia share a unique coding system, Auslan. It is possible to find dictionaries, humour and theatre pieces specifically developed to meet the cultural needs of the deaf.

Thirdly, this shared meaning changes over time (diachronic), new words are added and slang changes. Auslan is a living language; therefore it is as varied and colourful as those who use it make it.

Deaf culture has also given expression to its language and culture in various mediums, from Deaf Theatre to poetry. Auslan users have a shared history, traditions, beliefs and behaviours. One of the key characteristics of deaf culture is an emphasis on community over individualism. Deaf culture tends to be very social in nature.

“The cultural experience of the Deaf community has flourished in the arts. There is a growing body of ASL poetry and there are humorous tales handed down through generations of deaf people. Deaf people have a shared heritage and are fond of the history and folklore associated with famous Deaf individuals.”[3]


In conclusion we examine Auslan, Australian sign language. What makes Auslan distinctive is that it is a visual language medium. It is distinct enough from other languages to be independent.

With spoken language, words are differentiated by sound, but in a visual language, this is not an option. Visual cues are the main variables which transmit meaning and facilitate communication.

These primary variables include;

1. Location – where on the body the sign is produced
2. NMF or non-manual features – facial expressions or gestures
3. Movement – changes in location, hand shape or orientation
4. Orientation – direction of the sign
5. Hand shapes – way in which hand is held[4]

Auslan speakers prefer the two handed alphabet than the single handed alphabet used by ASL (American sign language) speakers. Knowing the two handed alphabet can go a long way to facilitate communication with people who are deaf.


In this essay we have examined deaf culture, some of its characteristics and its unique language. Deaf culture is a constantly evolving phenomenon, and an interesting and worthwhile area of study.

Knowledge of sign language in particular is a worthwhile pursuit in the quest to gain mutual understanding.

[1] Deaf culture fact sheet. Ontario Association of youth employment Centres. July 2004. Electronic source accessed 1/6/2006
[2] Deaf Culture, Disability studies for teachers, Centre on Human policy. Electronic source accesed 1/6/2006

[4] Phonology of Auslan Notes, Adam Schembri and Lisa Euler

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