Auslan is a language

What is Auslan?

Auslan is Australian Sign Language, the language of the Australian Deaf Community. Auslan is a distinct language, with its own grammar and syntax. Many people assume Auslan is simply English on the hands, however, it has its own lexicon and structure, conveying meaning through the use of distinctive handshapes, movements, facial expressions and the use of space.

Sign languages have evolved across the world where Deaf people live, work and interact. It is an essential organic language. Deaf people born to Deaf parents will learn the language from birth, others later in life alongside their parents, at school or as adults. Increasingly the wider community is actively learning Auslan in order to communicate freely and directly with Auslan users.

For Auslan user Olivia Beasley, it’s more than just a language.

“Auslan is like oxygen for us,” she says.

“It feels like life and death in a hospital environment. It’s not just a tool, it provides us with access to the communication we need to express our needs.”

Are there different types of sign language?

Auslan is, as the name suggests Australian Sign Language. Our language evolved from British Sign Language and shares similarities also with New Zealand, in the same way spoken languages often have borrowed words or influences from other countries. There are also many indigenous sign languages, spoken by people who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

There are different dialects of Auslan, most notably Northern and Southern dialects. The same hand movements can have different meanings depending on where someone is from.

How do you communicate with an Auslan user?

Engaging an Auslan interpreter is a powerful way of bridging the communication gap between a user of Auslan and a user of spoken English. Auslan Interpreters work between English and Auslan, and are accredited in the same way as any other language interpreter.

Highly specialised interpreters who are Deaf themselves, may also be employed in health settings where a patient has complex language needs. For example, if the Deaf person is a migrant they may have a sign language from another country or minimal language; a child still forming language; or a person who is experiencing mental health complications; a Deaf interpreter brings substantial language skills and lived experience in order to ensure communication is successful.

An interpreter ensures both you and your patient, and their family can communicate comfortably in your primary languages, providing the greatest possible opportunity for understanding and importantly, enabling informed consent.

If you work in a hospital, you will have a process for booking interpreters, possibly through your social work department or a dedicated language services team. This team will ensure a certified interpreter, Auslan or any language you require is booked for interactions with the patient. We strongly advise booking as early as possible, to ensure availability.

Auslan interpreters are not the only way to communicate with a patient who is Deaf or hard of hearing. Some people rely on lip-reading, hearing aids or cochlear implants or simply passing notes back and forth. Many people utilise a number of these options. The best and most successful strategy is to ask the patient their preferred communication method.

Key messages:

  • Auslan is a unique and visual language used by Australian people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
  • People who are Deaf or hard of hearing have a variety of communication strategies that they can use interchangeably, such as Auslan, lip-reading, exchanging notes.
  • To ensure ease of communication with an Auslan user, book an interpreter through the usual process in your hospital.

Expression Australia offers Auslan training.