27 September 2023

Why everyone should learn Auslan

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Fiona Murphy* says learning Auslan can give people a new language and new culture.

Despite growing up with hearing loss, it was a housemate who inspired Kate Disher-Quill to start Auslan lessons.

“I was kind of shocked that I hadn’t thought about [learning Auslan] before,” says Disher-Quill, a multidisciplinary artist based in Melbourne.

“The first class was pretty interesting.

“I was the only deaf or hard of hearing person in the class.

“It was almost like I was special,” Disher-Quill says.

“It was the first time where I felt like my deafness was celebrated.

“So that was a confronting, but also exciting experience.”

Part of the excitement came from “not having to worry about listening, which just made me feel at ease”, she says, as well as discovering how much sign language resonated with her.

Disher-Quill recalls a particular lesson when she was instructed to describe buildings using her hands.

“As a photographer and someone who’s always been very visual, I’ve always found it difficult to communicate things in words,” she says.

“But here I was able to communicate with just my hands and it just made so much sense.”

She says that attending the Auslan classes was part of a “coming out period”.

It was the first time she began to openly tell people that she wore hearing aids.

“I do think [signing] would have really helped me as a kid,” Disher-Quill says.

“It would have removed a lot of stress from my life.”

After completing that first Auslan course and learning about Deaf culture, Disher-Quill became more accepting of her hearing loss.

She also no longer felt “afraid to go completely deaf”.

“I’ve now got the support, the [Deaf] community and the language.”

She says she believes everyone can benefit from learning sign language.

“There’s so many ways that [learning Auslan] becomes useful for hearing and deaf people,” she says.

“It is not just as a language for deaf people, but it’s a language for all of us.

“It’s a really inclusive language.

“Everyone can benefit from it.”

Our voices were turned off

This enthusiasm for Auslan is shared by writer and academic, Dr Francesca Rendle-Short.

She signed up for her first Auslan course in 2019.

“It was like a bomb went off underneath me.

“Because I had no idea what this would be like and it was total immersion—I loved it,” she says.

She says there was an Auslan interpreter present during the first hour of the weekend course, but after the interpreter left, “our voices were turned off and it was all sign.”

Rendle-Short has never experienced hearing loss, but since completing that weekend course, she has continued to learn Auslan, enrolling in several online courses throughout periods of lockdown in Melbourne.

“I want to become fluent,” she says.

“It takes time, it takes practice, it takes commitment, you [must] keep coming back to it again and again.”

The motivation to learn sign language is shared by Rendle-Short’s family.

Her daughter-in-law has neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), a rare genetic condition which has caused her to gradually lose her hearing before becoming profoundly deaf last year.

“There [is] a big group of people surrounding her who are all learning Auslan,” Rendel-Short says.

Recently five of Rendle-Short’s family members enrolled in the same Auslan class.

“The teacher said to us, that’s so unusual [for an entire family to learn sign language].

“Why is it unusual? It’s just amazing.”

Rendle-Short says she is now constantly thinking about signs through her day, including when walking, cycling, shopping and cooking.

This includes “concentrating on the sign— the hand shape, how to get the fingers moving, the location, orientation and the [facial] expression,” she says.

This level of dedication to learning Auslan has helped her to converse more easily with her daughter-in-law.

“It [is] so thrilling to have this language in our pockets, in our hands, and we [can] communicate.”

The majority of Auslan students are hearing

Grant May is the Auslan practice lead with Expression Australia and said the majority of people learning sign language are hearing.

May comes from a fourth-generation Deaf family and is a native Auslan user.

He says there are three common reasons why people enrol in Auslan classes; they want to work as interpreters or in other jobs with the Deaf and hard of hearing community, they have family members with hearing loss, and people who just love the language.

If you want to learn Auslan, May says it’s important to not “just learn the language, use it”.

“The greater exposure to the language, your skills will build,” he says.

“This means getting out to the community and applying what you’ve learned in the classroom.

“You won’t just learn the language.

“You’re also learning the culture, behaviours, and customs as well.”

Auslan has its own syntax and grammar, which differs significantly from spoken languages, so don’t be afraid of making mistakes, May says.

“Especially in the classroom, as that’s where Auslan trainers will recognise and show you better way of using the signs in safe space.”

While learning Auslan has made communication less stressful for Disher-Quill, she wants to emphasise that it is not an easy language to learn.

“It’s difficult to become fluent, and not everyone is going to have the time or the resources or the relationships to make that happen,” Ms Disher-Quill says.

She suggests that even learning commonly used signs, such as coffee or thank you, can make day-to-day interactions more inclusive and meaningful.

“It’s a really nice thing to add to your verbal communication [and] to just be able to get comfortable using your hands.”

*Fiona Murphy is an award-winning deaf poet and essayist based in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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