Why we are so Protective about Appropriation of our Language

You may notice that there’s an almost fierce protectiveness over our language by some of our Deaf community members. There’s a few reasons for this, to name a few: we have had to fight to have our language recognised, to be allowed to use it, to be seen as intelligent and conversationally aware beings.

Throughout history, hearing people have decided that Deaf who couldn’t talk/verbally speak, were dumb, evil, incapable of intelligence and because of some of these thought systems, they deemed deaf people unable to procreate (indeed, enforced this through eugenics), unable to receive family inheritances, unable to marry, etc. There was a belief that spoken language was superior to sign language, that sign language was a series of gestures, not an actual language. 

I saw my (Deaf) guru, James Blyth, present at a workshop recently. He said something I have never thought about before. It really impacted on me.

He was talking about the importance and necessity of Auslan being taught properly, correctly and well.

Unlike other language teachers in Australian schools, if a German LOTE teacher doesn’t teach the language well, there’s a whole country where everyone speaks and preserves the language so some people who go to the country speaking incorrectly aren’t going to tip the balance of the language. Same for Japanese teachers, if their students don’t learn the language well, well, there’s millions of people who speak the language well, so the language will not be compromised by a few incorrect users of their language.

However, bearing in mind that 95% of deaf people are born to hearing families and less than 10% of those families may ever learn sign language, it is not an uncommon story that many d/Deaf people learn/seek out Deaf community and language later in life.

I sought it out when I was 16 years old. (It’s frankly exhausting to always keep trying to fit in to the hearing world who, often, make so little allowances).

Last year, I was a high school LOTE Auslan teacher. At the end of the year, the Yr 6s came to visit, these were students who had learnt A LITTLE Auslan that year and planned to go on to continue to learn more Auslan once they arrived in high school.

As I stood out the front of the class and went over some basic signs, including the Auslan alphabet, I noticed some incorrect productions of letters/signs. When I went to gently remind/correct the student of this mistake, they firmly told me “That’s what my teacher taught me!” and they weren’t that interested in being corrected or knowing the correct formation of the letter.

This experience alarmed and horrified me. As a member of the Deaf community and a Deaf teacher and Auslan user, I would hope that any teachers who teach Auslan are reminding their students that listening to and respecting Deaf/users of Auslan when and where appropriate.

If a teacher is teaching incorrect sign formation and the students then learn these incorrect signs and then they go on to use these in our fragmented Deaf community (because remember, there isn’t a country called Ausland) (sic), there can be a disturbing possibility where that incorrect sign can be spread through our language.

And this was James’ point he made in the presentation: where other languages have thousands and millions users of their language and often have a country with the origin of said language, Auslan doesn’t have this.

Preservation of our language becomes then, a solemn undertaking and one that should not be taken lightly.

Teachers of Auslan – and users of Auslan in general – should make it a point to ensure they are confident about the citation form and HOLME of signs they use. I deliberately teach and focus on these in the online course as they are vitally important to correct use and production of Auslan signs.