About Sign Language

What is Auslan (Australian Sign Language)?

Many people in the Australian Deaf community have been using Auslan (Australian Sign Language) for over 100 years. It is a language like Chinese, French, English, Spanish, except instead of speaking, it is signed using facial expressions, hand and body language. Like any other language, it requires study and practice before gaining fluency, especially to become a Teacher of the Deaf or a Professional Auslan-English interpreter.

At Expression Australia, we offer community courses to learn the basics while Melbourne Polytechnic offers qualified courses. Click here for more information about Expression Australia courses or visit Melbourne Polytechnic here for more information about Diploma of Auslan.

Auslan is its own language
Some people think that Auslan is not a real language. Auslan does have its own grammar, signs, vocabulary, syntax, etc like many other languages. This is what makes it a real language. For example, there are many foreign languages with different rules for communication. Auslan is the same, with its own set of rules. Naturally, Auslan is the language of the Australian Deaf community. 

Is Sign Language universal?
Auslan is not a universal language - it is unique to Australia. There is also Amercian Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), Chinese Sign Language, French Sign Language and so on. Sign language is influenced by the culture, language and traditions of each country like many other languages. There is International Sign (IS) that many deaf people learn in order to communicate more effectively with each other, especially in world conference and congresses run by World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section (WFDYS).  

How did Auslan evolve?
Sign Language was brought to Australia with migrants from the United Kingdom, who came to Australia by ship (as many migrants did). There were also deaf people on those ships. These people set up schools and were the first to educate deaf children in sign language. As with other languages including English, sign language has evolved over time to become Auslan. This means that Auslan's mother language is British Sign Language (BSL) and has adapted from that.

Using Auslan in Australia
Imagine you decided to learn French; you are all ready to go out into the community to practice your new skill. Who do you use it with? There are very few people in Australia who speak French, you’d have to fly to France to use this skill. With Auslan, you will be able to use the language regularly because there are many deaf people within the community. You might meet them through work or at the shop - the list goes on. It is a good skill to have, you never know when you might need to talk to a deaf person! What's more, you can be bilingual in Australia - fluent in both Auslan and English and can use these languages anywhere in Australia. 

Many people study and become Auslan-English interpreters to work with deaf people in situations ranging from work, medical appointments, banks, conferences, entertainment and community events. There are also Deaf interpreters to ensure communication is at a level in which both the deaf person and the hearing person can understand. For example, for English information required to be translated into Auslan, Deaf interpreters are often hired to become Auslan presenters and Auslan consultants. This can be for theatre shows, news, emergency information, etc.  

pdf icon Click here to download an information sheet about Auslan

Evolution of Auslan

Anne Bremner is a lecturer with the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Research at La Trobe University.

The mode of communication in Deaf education in schools between the1860s and 1870s was bilingualism through their first language (signing).

The 1880s saw the commencement of oral communication and in 1893, the Combined Method was introduced. In the early days around the 1930s and possibly earlier, ‘fingerspelling-only’ was very important in schools and this was known as the Rochester Method. This happened mainly when communicating with hearing people. Deaf people had signs at that time that are still in use nowadays. In the 1950s, the mode of communication included 1) Pure Oralism, 2) Combined-Oralism dominant, 3) Integration. Signed English, Total Communication and Cued speech soon followed.

Auslan is a relatively new term coined by Trevor Johnston (author of the Auslan Dictionary which was first published in 1989. In the old days, Auslan was often referred to as ‘Deaf Signing’ or later, Australian Deaf Sign Language. Auslan became recognised as a community language in 1991. The Federal Government stated the following in its National languages policy:

“It is now increasingly recognised that signing deaf people constitute a group like any other non-English speaking language group in Australia, with a distinct sub-culture recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity, united and symbolised by fluency in Auslan, the principal means of communication within the Australian deaf community. Auslan is an indigenous Australian language.”

(Commonwealth of Australia 1991, 20)

I wish to emphasise here that Auslan is recognised as a community language only. It was not until the early 1990s that deaf people began to take control of their own language and it is now recognised that in sign languages of the Deaf, these are fully legitimate human languages. We have sign language dictionaries and sign linguists (people who study sign languages) who first conducted research into the basic concepts sign language structure covering fundamental areas such as phonology, morphology, syntax and the use of language. Phonologically, Auslan has five parameters namely: Handshape,Orientation, Location, Movement and Expression (HOLME).

Handshape has 38 major handshapes with 28 variants which brings it to the total of 66 handshapes in all. (Trevor Johnston, 1998).

Orientation refers to the direction of the palm and fingers and where it faces e.g. WEIGH/BALANCE. Location involves signs connected to the body area e.g.

- Head


- Stomach


- Heart


Location may also involve two different places in the one sign eg. DEAF (the first location is on the side of the face near the ear and the second location is on the chin).  

Movement is found in all Auslan signs. There are different kinds of movements and they can either be big (macro) such as the sign for BIG or small (micro) as seen in the sign for LITTLE. In some signs the orientation of the hands may change such as: CHANGED-MY-MIND, PRESENTATION. Some signs may have one movement at the beginning and repeated movements at the end eg. HEARING, MEMORIAL.

The movement in the sign for ‘AUSLAN’ here in Melbourne involves twisting at the wrists and there is no movement in the fingers. However, the sign for Auslan used by our northern counterparts involves movement in the fingers and arms.

Movement is also found in the fingers eg. SALT, TWO-MORE, WORM, etc. Movements can be repeated once or several times, eg. LATER and AFTER

AFTER [lunch] = one movement

[see you] AFTER = repeated movements

LATER [on] = one movement

LATER [as in AFTER] = repeated movements

Movement also can change the meaning of a sign eg. RAIN and DOWNPOUR. This would also include the use of non manual features, stress and speed.

In noun-verb pairs, movement shows which sign is the noun and which sign is the verb, eg. the noun KEY uses repeated movements and the related verb LOCK uses one movement. Another example is the noun WINDOW (repeated movements) and the related verb OPEN-WINDOW (one movement).

It should be noted here that English-ed mouth patterns should not be used for many verbs, however, it is sometimes mouthed when using nouns.

Expression includes non manual features such as facial expression and movements of the head, shoulders and body, eg.

  • Eye gaze, direction and how you move your eyes, eg. FAR (narrowed eyes), SOON (eyes widen). Other examples are LOOK and STARE.
  • Lip patterns, eg:

Grimacing  = JUST-RECENTLY

Pouting = LOST

Pursing = REVENGE


rounding the lips = OH-I-SEE

sucking in  air = VACCUUM

blowing out air = BREATHE-A-SIGH-OF-RELIEF

poking out tongue = EXAGGERATE

  • Mouth movements: signs that uses specific mouth movements, eg.

STRANGE (buh-buh)

FINISH (fsh)


  • Facial expression can be used as a grammatical marker eg. MAN THERE WHO?

As previously stated, signs are made up of five parameters: Handshape, Orientation, Location, Movement and Expression. Minimal pairs are pairs of signs that have the same parameters except one, eg:

DUCK/BIRD share the same location, movement, orientation and expression but use different handshapes;

IN/UNDER share the same handshape, location, movement and expression but use different orientations;

YELLOW/WHITE share the same handshape, orientation, movement and expression but use different locations;

NOW/ADDITIONAL share the same handshape, orientation, location and expression but use different movement;

CHEAT/SLY share the same handshape, orientation, location and movement but use different expressions;


References:  Signs of Australia: A New Dictionary of Auslan by Trevor Johnson

                        The Structure and Formation of Signs in Auslan by Adam Schembri

                        The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll

Anne Bremner is a lecturer with the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language Research at La Trobe University.

How deaf people get their sign names