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Learning in Auslan

Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the language of the Deaf 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.

Some linguistic features of Auslan are similar to properties found in spoken languages and others are not. For example, the 26 fingerspelled letters of the Auslan alphabet are based on the 26 letters of English. The occasional contact Auslan has with English, such as in relation to mouthing (the use of lip patterns when signing) or fingerspelling, may support the early stages of learning Auslan for some second language learners, as might the apparent visual motivation of some signs. Although indigenous to the Australian Deaf community, Auslan shares some properties with other signed languages, which may make additional signed languages relatively easy to acquire once learners are fluent in Auslan.

Deaf students located in schools that offer a second language learner Auslan program have increased opportunity to expand their peer networks, potentially increasing their social circle, their resilience and inclusion in the school community. Second language learners learning in a school attended by deaf students have a unique opportunity to use their new language on a daily basis in an authentic context, impacting on accessibility and respect for linguistic and cultural difference.

Learner diversity

The rationale for providing a first language learner pathway is that native signers do not usually have an opportunity to formally study their natural first language in a classroom context. Such exploration and development of first language learning affords these students a more sophisticated understanding of their first language and scaffolds their acquisition of English as their second/additional language. Formally studying Auslan at school provides first language learners with powerful recognition of the value and status of their language and helps strengthen their sense of identity. The impact of this is healthier self-esteem, greater resilience, better mental health, an improved concept of self and a greater engagement with language, community and culture. In addition, formal learning of their first language may give students an increased opportunity to develop understanding, knowledge and valuable life skills across the curriculum.

The first language learner pathway typically caters for deaf students whose native language is Auslan (that is, deaf children of deaf adults, or deaf children from hearing families who use Auslan at home); hearing children with signing deaf parents; and deaf students who are introduced to Auslan at school, for whom it is a highly accessible language and likely to be their future preferred or primary language. This latter group of deaf children might not have access to Auslan at home. Developing a strong first language learner via this pathway from Foundation to Year 10 will particularly increase the educational capabilities of deaf children, encourage functional bilingualism in Auslan and English, and will improve learning and future employment opportunities.

The second language learner pathway typically caters for students who are not members of the Deaf community; most often, hearing students learning Auslan as a second or additional language. It may also include deaf or hard of hearing students already fluent in another language, such as a different signed language in the case of a recent immigrant, or spoken English for some deaf and hard of hearing students who have residual hearing or access to speech. These students are being introduced to Auslan for the first time as an additional language to add to their existing linguistic repertoire.

Due to a range of complex factors, it is recognised that these two pathways may not be able to meet the complete learning needs of all students. For example, native signers of Auslan who are hearing (such as hearing children from deaf families) may not be adequately accounted for in a first language learner pathway, due to the teaching and learning emphasis on the primary target group, deaf students. In addition, a deaf migrant already fluent in a native signed language from another country, such as American Sign Language, may not be entirely suited to a second language learner pathway for Auslan as so many age-appropriate first language learner features and linguistic competencies will already be present in his/her use of another signed language, making a second signed language easier to learn compared to other second language learners being exposed to learning a signed language for the first time. Congenitally deafblind children, or other students with a disability, may also present unique challenges with regard to determining language learning pathways.

Both first and second language learners of Auslan are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning programs that address their individual learning needs. In teaching Auslan, it will be necessary to account for the diversity of learners of Auslan, including accommodating:

  • students with a disability
  • gifted and talented students
  • students with English as an additional language or dialect
  • students from regional and remote contexts
  • students with diverse personal or cultural or religious backgrounds
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • students with a combination of equity and diversity needs.

Ultimately, this dual-pathway approach recognises that the key variable in the language learning experience is the diversity of the learners. It acknowledges that students bring specific backgrounds, diverse linguistic and cultural experience, individual knowledge and skills to their learning of Auslan, and that the programming and implementation in schools by teaching teams will need to reflect this, differentiating for learner diversity accordingly and drawing on the first or second language learner pathways and accommodating for individual students as appropriate.

Principles and Protocols

Engagement and appropriate consultation with the local Deaf community in an ethical, respectful and sustainable manner are the cornerstones of respectful Auslan program development and the key to a successful Auslan teaching program. Deaf people are the custodians of their language. Consultation with native or native-like and proficient users of Auslan who have ownership of the language is strongly recommended as a special consideration for Auslan programs, to ensure the language is taught in a contextually and culturally correct manner. Teaching Auslan without due consideration of/ liaison with the Deaf community may result in linguistic and cultural appropriation and the disenfranchisement of deaf people.

Issues to consider

  • the presence of deaf students within the school environment, for whom the provision of a first or second language learner Auslan program would be of academic, social, emotional and vocational benefit
  • the proportion of Deaf teachers, mentors, language models and Deaf community members in the region, and available access to them
  • the availability of skilled and appropriate personnel for teaching Auslan, such as qualified Auslan instructors/language teachers, and the capacity to team teach in deaf/hearing teams as needed in a culturally sensitive manner
  • the possibility of excursions to Deaf community events and the development of ongoing relationships with community members (such as Deaf seniors) to support pedagogy and to build and perpetuate mutual understanding and connections for the benefit of students and the community
  • the three-dimensional visual-spatial nature of Auslan means that it is ideally taught in a face-to-face context. ICT will play an important role in providing access to a variety of signers and signed texts, however, particularly for rural and remote learners
  • the range of cross-cultural considerations that need to be addressed when working in and teaching Auslan in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The teaching team should consult the local community about particular topics, local context and relevant cultural considerations, so that offence and embarrassment can be avoided
  • the importance of promoting further research of Auslan and the development, collection and digitisation of quality texts, teaching materials, resources and assessment and reporting tools for teaching purposes
  • the need for investment in the professional development of suitable Auslan teachers to meet future anticipated interest and demand in Auslan programs in schools; and for recognition of the fact that the success of Auslan programs depends on the fundamental premise that suitably skilled and qualified teachers, including native or native-like proficient users of Auslan, have key roles in their development and implementation
  • schools enrolling deaf and hard of hearing students on the same site may wish to consider offering both Auslan pathways or a blend of the two as needed. Authentic opportunities for the deaf, hard of hearing and hearing peers to engage with each other, either face to face or via technology, allows second language learner students to practise the language in a real-world context. Such practice benefits for hearing students transfer to deaf students by broadening their peer network, increasing communication across the school and over several year levels for the deaf students, and potentially have social, emotional, cultural, psychological, academic and vocational benefits for all students in the program.

For more specific guidance and to connect with the Deaf community, contact the national peak body representing the needs and interests of Auslan users, Deaf Australia, or the relevant state association.

Texts and resources

Students engage with a range of age-appropriate signed texts, both live and recorded, designed for learning Auslan in school. Authentic texts created for Deaf people, such as websites, provide extra opportunities to extend understanding of language and culture. Texts also come from a range of domains or genres, such as community announcements, vlogs and stories, and serve a variety of purposes, such as informative, transactional, communicative, imaginative and expressive. The Deaf community is the most important resource for learning because it is the origin of most of the texts and communicative situations engaged with by students.

The role of English

For the first language learner pathway, Auslan is the principal medium of instruction. English plays a complementary role, which varies according to the capacity, background and learning experiences of the student. Discussion in Auslan supports learning, develops conceptual frames and builds metalanguage. The process of moving between languages consolidates the already established sense of what it means to be bilingual or multilingual and provides opportunities for reflection on the experience of living interculturally in intersecting language communities. The learning of Auslan supports and enriches deaf children’s learning of English and vice versa.

For the second language learner pathway,  Auslan is used for classroom routines and language learning tasks and may be used as the language of instruction for learning the content of other learning areas. The language of response varies, both according to the capacity, background and learning experiences of the students and the task demands. English may also be used to research cultural issues where the source text is not available in Auslan.

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