Reading the signs for a revelation

16:00, Nov 03 2012

Back in May, I wrote about my failure to learn another language despite a number of false starts. At the time I resolved to pick up one of these abandoned tongues and commit to becoming fluent. I may still do this, but - typical me - I've gone and started learning a new one.

I've never heard this language spoken, but I reckon it's beautiful. It's not readily understood in other countries, but it has already opened up a new world for me.

I'm talking about New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), which I started learning through work. My six-week course has given me insight into how you might design learning environments for the hearing impaired, but the lessons stretch much further than that.

The first thing I realised is that I already used my hands a lot when speaking; a habit reinforced by the time I've spent with my wife's family, who are Italian. NZSL is a bit like watching my father-in-law on mute, but with fewer throat-slitting gestures.

Many NZSL signs struck me for their intuitiveness and wry humour. The sign for Dunedin looks like a one-winged chicken until you realise it's actually an invisible bagpipe they're playing, signifying the city's Scottish settlers. To say cricket, you play a forward defensive stroke with the back of your right hand, suggesting the gentlemanly days before Twenty20 cricket.

There's also something strange and wonderful about physically rehearsing the thing you're talking about. To say apple, you bring an invisible apple to your mouth and, if you're hungry, you start salivating. To tell someone you're going grocery shopping, you push the trolley out in front of you and in that moment you're transported to Pak 'n Save, its concrete floors and screaming toddlers. The beauty of signing is that your face is free to express whether the act of shopping is for you a chore or a delight.


Of course, as with any language, there are times when NZSL can be misleading. The sign for ''to give birth'', for example, makes it seem quick and almost fun.

Part way through my course I turned up to a meeting at work and realised that the Ken, who'd sent me the invitation, was K - E - N (short names are well suited to finger-spelling) from my sign language class. We had already discussed how many siblings we had  and what time we went to bed, but had never spoken. We both smiled, did the M-shaped wave (Kia ora) and waited to see who would be the first to use their vocal chords. When the silence was broken, it was sadly down to the business of school-property funding.

Perhaps this beginner's glow will fade and I will shelve my fingerspelling and forget how to ask ''What's your favourite colour?'' But I hope not. So far I've found the deaf community intensely proud, well-organised and welcoming. As one of New Zealand's three official languages, it's worth signing up for an NZSL taster class if you ever get the chance. Silence will never be the same.

Craig Cliff is a writer and expressive hand-talker. He writes a fortnightly column.

The Dominion Post