Fewer Kiwis can use sign language

Last updated 05:00 08/01/2014
James Whale

FAMILY PURSUIT: James Whale, 5, who despite having cochlear implants has still learnt sign language because his parents say that ‘‘to isolate him from an entire community that can understand him better than we can would be cruel’’.

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James Whale can speak as well as any 5-year-old but sometimes he lets his hands do the talking.

The Wellington boy and his family are among the dwindling number of Kiwis who can use New Zealand Sign Language.

James become profoundly deaf after getting meningococcal meningitis as a newborn. But, despite James being able to hear with the help of bilateral cochlear implants, his mother, Katy Lyde, said it was important to teach her son to sign.

"He is still deaf and to isolate him from an entire community that can understand him better than we can would be cruel."

However, figures suggest many Kiwi parents are not bothering to teach their deaf children sign language at all.

Census 2013 figures show the sign language in a precarious position, shedding more than quarter of its users in the past 12 years. The decline is particularly sharp among teenagers.

Why is unclear, but Rachel McKee, at Victoria University's Deaf Studies, cited the rise in cochlear implants among children, the decline in deaf schools, and fewer adult education options, all as possible causes. The decline was happening despite unprecedented public interest in sign language and a strong demand to learn, particularly since it was named a national language in 2006. However, these did not always translate to more people learning to sign, Dr McKee said.

Sign language would not disappear as long as there were deaf people who wanted to communicate, but the size and strength of the community was worrying, she said. Of the 20,235 Kiwis who could sign, most were not deaf but had learnt to communicate with a deaf friend or family member.

But as fewer people learned sign language, there would be fewer to teach deaf children. "With minority languages, the most difficult thing is transmitting from one generation to the next. With sign language that is particularly hard."

Ms Lyde said learning to sign had been slow and hard, particularly with three young children. She and her husband, John Whale, attended night classes for three years and then tried to pass what they learned on to their children.

"It is hard because there are not really any places where families can go together to learn."

These days, the whole family can sign passably, with James's sister Milly particularly enthusiastic. While James prefers to speak with his implant in, signing is useful in bed, in the water, or loud places where his implants struggle to differentiate noise. The family were also fortunate to live in Wellington, which, unlike most places, has a growing deaf community and teaching courses.

This was probably due to there being more opportunity to learn through Victoria University, which taught about 80 students deaf studies a year, Ms Lyde said.

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- The Dominion Post

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