We are all watching the Press Conferences where someone to the side of the main speaker is “signing”.

I don’t know much or really anything at all about signing.  I have no idea how it began, who started it, if every country has its own sign language or if there’s an international standard.  So read on if you want to learn with me about any of this!

One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato‘s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?”

Pedro Ponce de León  1520–1584, is said to have developed the first manual alphabet.

This alphabet was based, in whole or in part, on the simple hand gestures used by monks living in silence.

Ponce de Leon established a school for the deaf at the San Salvador Monastery in Oña. His students were almost all children of wealthy aristocrats who could afford private tutoring. His work with deaf children focused on helping them to learn how to speak language audibly. He also instructed children in writing and in simple gestures as portrayed in the image above where he’s teaching a deaf child.

Then, in 1620 Juan Pablo Bonet published ‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’, and it’s considered the first modern treatise of sign language phonetics, setting out a method of oral education for deaf people and a manual alphabet.

In Britain, manual alphabets were also in use for a number of purposes, such as secret communication, public speaking, or communication by deaf people. (Funnily enough, deaf people say one of the best things about being able to sign is holding a conversation across a crowded room full of people and noise!)  In 1648, John Bulwer described “Master Babington”, a deaf man proficient in the use of a manual alphabet, “contryved on the joynts of his fingers”, whose wife could converse with him easily, even in the dark through the use of tactile signing.

The vowels of this alphabet have survived to this day in the contemporary alphabets used in British Sign Language, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language.

The earliest known printed pictures of consonants of the modern two-handed alphabet appeared in 1698 with Digiti Lingua (Latin for Language [or Tongue] of the Finger), a pamphlet by an anonymous author who was himself unable to speak. Nine of its letters can be traced to earlier alphabets, and 17 letters of the modern two-handed alphabet can be found among the two sets of 26 handshapes still depicted.

Charles de La Fin published a book in 1692 describing an alphabetic system where pointing to a body part represented the first letter of the part (e.g. Brow=B), and vowels were located on the fingertips, he described such codes for both English and Latin. He suggested that the manual alphabet could also be used by mutes, for silence and secrecy, or purely for entertainment.

By 1720, the British manual alphabet had found more or less its present form.   Descendants of this alphabet have been used by deaf communities (or at least in classrooms) in former British colonies India, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and South Africa, as well as the republics and provinces of the former Yugoslavia, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Norway, Germany and USA.

Frenchman, Charles-Michel de l’Épée published his manual alphabet in the 18th century.  This has survived basically unchanged in France and North America until today.  In 1755, Abbé de l’Épée founded the first school for deaf children in Paris;  Laurent Clerc was arguably its most famous graduate. Clerc went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. 

Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, founded a school for the deaf in 1857 in Washington, D.C., which in 1864 became the National Deaf-Mute College. Now called Gallaudet University, it is still the only liberal arts university for deaf people in the world.

Curiously, USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand all have English as their dominant language, but American Sign Language (ASL), used in the US and English-speaking Canada, is derived from French Sign Language, whereas the other three countries use varieties of British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language, which is unrelated to ASL its called Auslan.  (more about Auslan later).

Interestingly, the sign languages of Spain and Mexico are very different, despite Spanish being the national language in each country and the sign language used in Bolivia is based on ASL rather than any sign language that is used in any other Spanish-speaking country.

Variations also arise within a ‘national’ sign language which don’t necessarily correspond to dialect differences in the national spoken language; rather, they can usually be correlated to the geographic location of residential schools for the deaf.  This is interesting because I actually wondered if dialect in different areas had an effect on signing.

International Sign, formerly known as Gestuno, is used mainly at international deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf.   While recent studies claim that International Sign is a kind of a pidgin, they conclude that it is more complex than a typical pidgin and is more like a full sign language.

By the way, the next Deaflympics is going to be held at Caxias do Sul, Brazil on 05-21 December 2021. I hope this virus thing is over by then!

There is a common misconception that sign languages are somehow dependent on spoken languages: that they are spoken language expressed in signs, or that they were invented by hearing people.   This is exactly what I was wondering at the very beginning of this project.

Similarities in  language processing in the brain between signed and spoken languages further perpetuated this misconception.  Hearing teachers in deaf schools, such as Charles-Michel de l’Épée or Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (mentioned before) are often incorrectly referred to as “inventors” of sign language but instead, sign languages, like all natural languages, are developed by the people who use them, in this case, deaf people, who may in fact have little or no knowledge of any spoken language.

Fascinatingly, British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are quite different and mutually unintelligible, even though the hearing people of the United Kingdom and the United States both share “English” as their spoken language.  For example, countries which use a single spoken language throughout may have two or more sign languages, or an area that contains more than one spoken language might use only one sign language. South Africa, which has 11 official spoken languages and a similar number of other widely used spoken languages, is a good example of this. It has only one sign language with two variants due to its history of having two major educational institutions for the deaf which have served different geographic areas of the country.

Some adjectival and adverbial information is conveyed through non-manual elements, but what these elements are varies from language to language. For instance, in ASL a slightly open mouth with the tongue relaxed and visible in the corner of the mouth means ‘carelessly’, but a similar non-manual in BSL means ‘boring’ or ‘unpleasant’.

The classification of Sign Language families   French Sign Language family   American Sign Language (ASL) cluster   Russian Sign Language cluster   Czech Sign Language cluster   Danish Sign Language family   Swedish Sign Language family   German Sign Language family   Vietnamese sign languages & some Thai and Lao SLs   Arab sign-language family   Indo-Pakistani Sign Language   Chinese Sign Language   Japanese Sign Language family (including Taiwanese Sign Language)   BANZSL family (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language)   South African Sign Language   and other isolated languages.

During our recent “black summer” of forest fires we would see Auslan interpreters regularly beside our political leaders, Chief health officers, Police Commissioners, Heads of the Fire Department,  and they are sharing the information simultaneously to all the deaf people watching.  They don’t have to wait for someone else to interpret the press conferences for them.  I wonder why this hasn’t been happening all along, since the beginning of television!

Photo: Auslan interpreter Mandy Dolejsi signs at an ACT Government press conference. (ABC News: Michael Black)

According to Holly Tregenza, in some Australian states and territories, the audience knows the interpreters by name.

Mandy Dolejsi is actually the only Auslan interpreter in the ACT with the qualifications needed to work in emergency broadcast.  She is trying to retire, unsuccessfully, and is widely recognized around Canberra.  Ms Dolejsi has been doing the job officially for 38 years, but has been involved in the deaf community a lot longer.  “My husband, Ivan, is deaf,” she said.  “There was a large group of deaf people that we socialised with and a lot of us worked in the same government department, so bosses from other sections would ask me to interpret things.”

Pretty soon, she went from interpreting for her husband and his social circle to interpreting for ministers and prime ministers.  “In one leap. There was no real learning curve. I didn’t even call myself an interpreter, I could just sign,” she said.  Thank you for your work Ms Dolejsi! What a difference it makes for hearing-impaired people.

Photo: Another “signer”, Ms Bun, conveyed the recent announcement that Australia had updated its travel advisory to level four for the entire world — a first in the nation’s history. (ABC News)

The Australian Network on Disability estimates there are about 30,000 Auslan users with complete hearing loss.  While captioning has its place, it can be patchy and inaccurate. And in an emergency situation, that can be deadly.  Leonie Jackson is the chief executive of the Deaf Society and is herself a deaf person, and says:

“Many deaf people in Australia rely on Auslan to get information,” Ms Jackson said.  When asked how tiring it is, Ms Bun (pictured above) said she sometimes gets a sore back and went on to explain “It’s more my brain; we can only interpret at our peak for about 20 minutes.”

She said that is why people might notice an interpreter come on as a substitute mid-way through a press conference. “Yes, they still get nervous going live to air and sometimes we don’t get the information beforehand, so that’s the stress,” Ms Dolejsi said.

Ms Dolejsi has been involved in the deaf community for more than 40 years.   ABC News: Michael Black

“Being live is a completely different kettle of fish to just interpreting at a doctor’s office” she says.

She said the latest news, that ABC News channel’s Sunday 6:00pm AEST national bulletin would feature an Auslan interpreter picture-in-picture, was a terrific step forward.   In fact, there are more interpreters on Australian screens than at any other time in history.

“It’s amazing,” Ms Jackson said. “It gives them a greater sense of feeling safe. There has been a lot of panic that deaf people would miss information.  But an interpreter wouldn’t be on screen without deaf people advocating for that.

“In the past the prime minister’s office never booked an interpreter or accepted the need for an interpreter, but I think having them now means that we’ve seen a big impact.”

“We can’t describe the feeling of knowing what is happening. It’s a really a huge sense of relief.” said Leonie Jackson, Chief executive of the Deaf Society and is herself a deaf person.


There are loads of different ways to learn how to sign.  There are techniques to help deaf children learn, there are flash cards and videos and all manner of ways to help teach Auslan.

Anywhere in Australia you can go to The Deaf Society and book an Auslan interpreter for your event or you can learn all about Auslan for yourself.

And, dear Reader, you can learn a piece of signing that I promise you will never forget.

Hilarious! Once seen, never forgotten!

What a useful skill these people have, and I’m so pleased this is part of our regular broadcasting routine. Thank you to all “signers” for your work and I’m sorry its been so long coming.

More random blog topics coming soon.  Anything which has interested you recently that you’d like to learn more about?

I’ve received this extremely informative reaction to the blog that you see above and decided to actually add it here for everyone to read.  Thanks Alison Kingston for sharing some of your vast knowledge on this topic for us.

A great article Jenie!
Very well researched and accurate 👍🏻

Some other interesting points are:
– Auslan and BSL are 80% the same
– Dialects exist between the West and East of Australia – which differs the signs slightly
– All aboriginal communities (200+) have their own sign language and there are no qualified Aboriginal sign language interpreters
– The sign language used on the hands is called Tactile signing and is used with Deafblind people (e.g Helen Keller).
– A lot of Deaf people have Ushers – which means they will also go blind in their late teens.
– When you sign you use the visual area of your brain more than the language area.
– Interpreting refers to spoken or signing, Translation refers to written text. The two words mean different things but people often use them interchangeably.
– All signs are made up of 5 key factors – H.O.L.M.E =
H – Handshape – there is several keys ones (eg the OK hand, flat palm ect)
O – Orientation – which way does the palm face? Which way does the hand/s move?
L – Location – where on the body is the sign made – eg M on the head is Mother, M on the hand is Monday)
E – Expression (eg the signs for ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ is the same – only the face changes between happy and sad to show the difference)
– Auslan has a different grammatical structure to English (eg English – ‘I have a test on Monday’, Auslan – ‘Test Monday I Have’)
– Not all English words have a direct sign translation – some are made from several signs, others are described using classifier signs and others are fingerspelt (using the Auslan Two-handed alphabet). This is why sometimes there seems to be more or less signs compared to spoken words during press conferences.
– Most older generation Deaf people were taught ‘signed English’ or to fingerspell every word – rather than use Auslan. Which makes their interpreting needs different.
– English idioms do not translate into Auslan
– Auslan Interpreters have interpreted Shakespeare – although it’s very hard to do!
– CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adult.
– The Milan conference happened in 1880. It was a group of hearing ‘professionals’ discussing the needs and education of Deaf people. Deaf people were not allowed to voice their opinions at the conference. It was decided that signing was detrimental to the Deaf learning to talk and resulted in signing being banned throughout the world for 100 years – until 1980. Even in Deaf schools.
– Key word signing (previously Makaton) is based on Auslan but was created by hearing people with no Deaf consultation. Most Deaf people see this as hearing people stealing their language.
– These two events and ongoing medical pressure from old school/ uneducated audiologists, speech therapists ect has resulted in a lot of Deaf people having a mistrust of hearing people.
– Deaf Interpreters (DI) exist! These are Deaf people that know how to sign really well and have been professionally recognised by NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters). As native signers, they can adapt the language more fluently to meet the needs of others. E.g a Deaf refugee from Iran who doesn’t know Auslan or a Deaf person who has been locked away at home for 50 years and knows only their own home signs. A general set up for DI’s is hearing person talks, Auslan interpreter interpreters, DI interprets from Auslan into a form of sign the other Deaf person can understand. This then goes the other way for the Deaf persons response. There is currently groups advocating that Deaf Interpreters should be the ones onscreen in emergencies and at press conferences.
– By law people have to provide Interpreters when requested under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (and the WA Language Services Policy). However wording is vague in the DDA – as with most government documents – and so it allows for loopholes. (It was my job everyday to advocate for Deaf people’s rights to an Interpreter.)
– Deaf people that sign are referred to as Deaf (capital D) and people that don’t sign are referred to as deaf (little d). Because Deaf people not only have their own language through sign, they also embrace the Deaf culture and community that goes with it. Oral deaf people don’t embrace this language, culture and community. The capital D refers to the first group as a cultural group – they class themselves as a CALD group (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) rather than a disability group. Because they can do anything we can do – except hear.
– Cochlear implants are implanted via brain surgery. While they do work well for some deaf people the surgery is risky. Their has been brain damage and facial paralysis complications. Most deaf people with cochlears also get them so they can learn to speak, thus they will not be fully embraced by the Deaf community. Cochlear surgery also results in you loosing any residual hearing you had to start with.
– Deaf people never use the words ‘hearing impaired’ because they don’t see themselves as impaired – if anything they believe they have not lost anything – but gained a whole culture, language and community
– Unfortunately a lot of the blocks to Interpreter access come down to price and availability –
– As an Interpreter Booking Officer I received 70+ Interpreter bookings a day, but only had 30 interpreters on staff (more than any other Interpreting organisation in my state). All with different skill levels, qualifications and expertise. Matching them with the topic and physical location of the booking and the Deaf persons signing needs was full on – not every interpreter is suited for every job. Under the DDA the Deaf person also has a right to choose their preferred interpreters, which limits the pool even more (but is very important).
– Interpreters cost upwards of $250 for two hours so people hate paying for them, even governments would refuse to pay, even though they had to provide under the DDA.
– After years of advocating we started getting interpreters used at press conferences, but the news crews cut them out of frame when broadcasting on TV, as they were seen as ‘distracting’ for hearing people – this is also the most common excuse for not having them in theatres or classrooms. This has only started to change in recent years, hence why you can now see them.

How do I know all this?
I studied Auslan full time at Tafe for two years and worked at the W.A Deaf Society for 5 years as an Interpreter Booking Officer. I was the person responsible for advocating for abc booking interpreters at all events (dr, Anzac Day celebrations, family events, hearing appointments, school meetings, job interviews, theatre shows ect)

Anyway… I could ramble on about this topic forever 🤐 – sorry for hijacking your post 🤦🏻 – thanks for sharing such an informed article with everyone 😊

How lucky am I to have received such a response.  Thank you Alison!  I love being a blog writer – you never know where the ripples end.

Happy days.


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