Many Australians believe Auslan, a sign language used by many deaf people in Australia is a manual representation of the English language using hand signs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Auslan has its own grammar and vocabulary which is different from English and as such is considered a language in its own right.
Let me say this again. Auslan is NOT English.
As a deaf child brought up with the English language - written, oral and signed (Australasian Signed English is a manual representation of English), my first experience of Auslan was at eight years old.
Even at that young age, I was very aware of stereotypes attributed to deaf people. How could I not be? I had to fight these views daily to maintain my autonomy as a capable (as opposed to disabled) person. The deaf and dumb stereotype in particular, really irked me, and that, coupled with a hearing person’s understanding of sign language (manual representation of the dominant language), provided a strong basis for my dislike of Auslan.
So, there I was, sitting there trying to lipread the person teaching Auslan and feeling rather disgruntled at what I perceived to be a mockery of deaf people.
There was over-exaggerated facial expressions and smatterings of oral English words here and there in completely the wrong order. I remember eight year old me sitting there thinking “…and this is why people think deaf people are dumb. This person looks like an idiot, and talks like one too.” All my hearing peers were happily learning Auslan while I sat at the back of the room with a ferocious scowl on my face, refusing to say “How you, your name what?” in Auslan.
In my defense, if you heard someone say “Cat black this morning I saw beautiful”, you would wonder about their mental capabilities, and probably would think they were missing twenty cents or more to the dollar. However, this is a typical Auslan grammatical sentence structure according to Better Health Victoria.
One of the older Auslan dictionaries
No one bothered to explain to me I would be learning a completely different language. With my English bias, I believe even if they had done so, I would have still been annoyed at the mangling of English I saw with lipreading Auslan.
As an adult, I can appreciate how Auslan has evolved naturally over time to be a fluent and quick way for deaf people to communicate at a visual-spatial level.
However, I still have issues with Auslan. I think in English. I cannot switch back and forth between lipreading a speaker and reading an interpreter’s sign if the interpreter is using Auslan. I end up ignoring the interpreter and doing my best to get what I can lipreading which means I also miss information I need. English in all its forms has always been my first language, which makes me wonder how it works for deaf children who have Auslan as their first language and are expected to learn in English, and are assessed in English. Admittedly I don’t know enough about bilingualism to weigh this particular issue.
So once more, Auslan is not English. I know this, yet it still messes with my head when English words are used but with different grammatical structure!