Mother Tongues

a journey through language

Learning to Sign


This week in lil ol’ New Zealand, it’s New Zealand Sign Language Week. We’re celebrating ten years of NZSL being an official language of New Zealand (along with Māori and English).

So I set out to learn about NZSL. Exploring this unique window into Kiwi Deaf culture has been eye-opening and a tonne of fun. Here’s a few things I discovered 🙌

A hidden history

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) has a history of secrecy and stealth – because the people who used it were oppressed.

But let’s start at the beginning: people reckon British Sign Language came to New Zealand sometime during the 1800s. In 1880, a school for the Deaf was set up in Christchurch and it’s probably here that a uniquely Kiwi version of sign language began to develop.

Until 1979, Deaf children were not allowed to sign at school. All instruction was oral, and the Deaf community were told that signing in public wasn’t proper. Children who signed were punished. But still, they signed in secret, keeping NZSL alive.


NZSL is a “ninja” language – it had to be kept secret to stay alive. (You can even be a Sign Ninja today.) Butterflies are recognised as a powerful visual metaphor for Deafness because although they can’t hear, they are independent.

In the 1980s, the sign ban was lifted. But instead of their own sign language, Deaf students were taught to use the artificial Australasian Sign Language, a form of signed English. Many of these signs found their way into the vocab of NZ sign language users.

Around this time, research into New Zealand’s own unique sign language was set in motion. Dictionaries were compiled and research found that the sign language of Kiwis had grammar and vocabulary distinct from English. NZSL finally got the recognition it deserved: it is a legit language in its own right. From here, Deaf culture has flourished in NZ.

In 1993, NZSL was adopted for use in Deaf Education. A comprehensive dictionary was put together in 1998, and in 2006 NZSL became an official language of New Zealand. Today, it’s used by some 20,000 people everyday.

Stories from NZSL

I got in touch with a couple of friends to learn their sign language stories. I was blown away by their responses, which I’ve included below in full so you too can be moved and enlightened! Here’s what Josje and Georgia had to say:

When did you learn NZSL and why?

Josje: I learnt NZSL growing up because my mum is Deaf so it was very apparent in our household. People often ask me, “Oh, when and how did you learn sign language,” and the answer is pretty simple really. I relate it back to how my friends learnt English. They just sort of grew up around it and absorbed it because that was the norm. Its the same with me for NZSL, it was spoken in my household growing up, just like English so I learnt it through my mother and being surrounded by it.

Georgia: I learned NZSL in my first year at Victoria University (second year of Uni). It’s kind of a long story but one of my great friends from high school has a Deaf mum, whenever I would visit I would get such a buzz off learning signs from her, starting small with signs like pizza, party and cool story bro. I never got that buzz from my studies in Otago, so I thought I’ll learn NZSL as part of my studies to keep me interested and motivated. Otago doesn’t teach it so I moved to Wellington, transferring my papers and enrolling in Deaf Studies where I learnt to sign and I’ve never looked back.

What’s the best thing about NZSL and/or the Deaf community?

Josje: The best thing about NZSL is the fact that it is a communication tool. It is a language which connects us. People from different backgrounds, hearing and deaf people can communicate and connect in an amazing way – visually! I love how it is a visual language, a lot based around facial expressions and movement of the body – its beautiful!

Also another really awesome thing about it is that its not a literal translation of English or any language for that matter. NZSL has its OWN grammar and syntax which makes it unique and wholesome.

Georgia: There are so many great things about both, in terms of the language the best thing is how versatile it is to use, in silent situations where you otherwise couldn’t talk, you can subtlety sign and you can have conversations in bars where you otherwise can’t hear a thing except base, you can talk through windows and from far away – I’ve been at a traffic light and had conversations with people from class from across the road which was pretty awesome.

The best thing about the Deaf community is how they encouraged and welcomed me, they are always glad more people are learning NZSL. Now I have Deaf friends who are great people that I would otherwise never know.

Do you have a fave sign?

Josje: Yes my favourite sign is ‘weird’ because the sign itself is weird – its like the sign language version of onomatopoeia

Georgia: My favourite sign is probably ‘weird’ because it is what it says and you can make the greatest facial expression to express weird too.

Weird is signed with your dominant hand with your index, middle and ring finger (W shape) and goes across your chest, bending the fingers as you move across.


Weird in NZSL

Do you think knowing sign language has allowed you to be more creative / think differently / see the world in unique ways?

Josje: Absolutely, I think knowing sign language has definitely opened up creative doors for me. I am much more visual because of it. I have learnt the art of reading peoples expressions and body language and I am able to appreciate the small unique things that make sign language beautiful. It’s hard to explain, I think you have to learn it to understand!

Georgia: Yes, yes and yes! I definitely think differently about many aspects of my life, from small things about how I get people’s attention and the importance of eye contact, and also holistically in how I view the education system and all minorities – everyone just wants to be understood.

Do you have a sign name or do you always spell it out?

Josje: Yes, I have a sign name which my mum gave me. It is sort of tradition that only a deaf person can give you a sign name, and it always reflects a part of your personality, looks and mannerisms.

Georgia: I do have a sign name, it’s ridiculous, it’s the sign for ‘cool’. My friends mum, I call her Mumma Josje, gave it to me when I was in high school – she probably thought I’d never actually be a part of the community but it has stuck.

Sign names are given by Deaf people only and are something that represents you, for me it was because ‘cool’ was the word I used for everything, and I always remembered that, always saying this is cool, that’s cool, you’re cool, cool story bro etc etc.

When I first meet someone I always spell my name and introduce my sign name, often Deaf people ask the story when you meet them too.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about NZSL?

Josje: I wish more people knew that NZSL is an official language of New Zealand along with Māori and English. I wish more people knew that sign language is not a universal language, it is unique to each country just like spoken languages. I wish more people viewed NZSL as something beautiful and connecting, rather than what someone uses because of a ‘disability’. I wish more people knew the basic fundamentals and I hope that more schools introduce NZSL as an elective subject!

Georgia: There’s a few things, I wish they knew it was a 100% visual language, seems obvious but many people still walk in front of the conversation or turn the lights down, but for Deaf people they need the light to talk.

I wish people didn’t expect Deaf people to be able to lip read because its actually one of the hardest things to ever learn and even the best people can only can lip read 80% of what you’re saying if you’re looking directly at them.

Finally, I wish people weren’t intimidated it – so many people have said to me, “A Deaf person came into work and I was just in shock I wish I knew what to say to them.” Just smile and nod and look at them in the eyes when you’re communicating with them, and if you need their attention, get in their view and wave at them. If you don’t know NZSL, Deaf people will visually be able to read your body language so just be bold with your gestures.

Any advice for people wanting to learn NZSL?

Josje: Do some research into classes and courses in your area. There are loads of platforms you can learn from. Online, universities and community colleges offer courses and classes or reach out to the deaf community for private lessons! Ask my mum, she travels the country teaching it! Haha 🙂

Georgia: Do it! Get yourself into a class and go regularly, download the NZSL app and learn a sign a day, and when you’ve been to a few classes, I know it’s intimidating but get emerged in the Deaf community, go to a Deaf club event. Even if you just introduce yourself a few times, they will be welcoming and you’ll learn something more.


It’s loads of fun

NZSL, or any sign language, is in no way “simpler” than a spoken language. Sign languages develop organically with their own vocabulary and grammar that’s every bit as complex and quirky as any spoken tongue. Just like spoken languages, there are also regional dialects of NZSL – slight differences between the North and South Islands.

The only difference is: it’s all visual. And it’s not just hand gestures either – sign languages will use facial expressions and body language/position to communicate too.

For example, in NZSL, when you’re asking a yes or no question, you tilt your body slightly forward, hold the last sign a little longer and raise your eyebrows.

Structure is different in NZSL too – instead of “what is your name?” we would ask “your name what?” And yep, there’s none of those little words like the and is.

NZSL has signs for Māori concepts – but remember there’s no “English” sign language or “Māori” sign language. Sign languages don’t match spoken ones – they’re fully-fledged lingos in their own right, visual structures that emerge from the experience of Deaf people.

I’ve jumped in to try and learn a few signs this week. AND I HAD SO MUCH FUN. Seriously guys, NZSL is wicked. Here’s some resources if you’d like to give NZSL a go:

A handy tip: use the hand you write with (your dominant hand) to do the work!

Here are my attempts (sorry if I haven’t got them right!) (yes they’re mainly of food hehe)

Hello, my name is E-L-L-E-N

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Huge thanks to Josje and Georgia for helping me with this post – you’re awesome 🙂

Josje is an amazing artist – you can check out her work at Ramatree on her website or on Facebook.


Do you know a sign language? Let me know your sign language experience in the comments!



Author: Ellen

Aspiring writer & nature enthusiast

6 thoughts on “Learning to Sign

  1. Hi, I sign American Sign Language…both finger spelling and signing.. so I do exact signing and it seems a bit different..than yours…but similar. I taught reading with sign language. Kids of all abilities love to sign.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done.. Nice videos!!


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Ellen Rykers and commented:

    Happy NZSL Week!


  4. Great post – I never knew NZ had its own sign language.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: How Sign Languages Can Teach Us About Language Evolution | Mother Tongues

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