Welcome to my online course, which aims to teach you some basic Auslan (Australian sign language). You’ll learn both vocab and concepts for how Auslan is used.
Auslan, like English, is a language that constantly evolves and changes. There ils a lot of debate about whether certain signs and phrases are correct or not. Signs are updated to remove racist influences, and then changed back again to be visually appropriate. Signs vary between the states in Australia – for example, the sign for ‘hungry’ here in Melbourne is the sign for ‘sexy’ in Sydney! This course reflects how I use Auslan here in Melbourne. It’s not perfect – there are plenty of Deaf people out there who will tell you that some of these signs and ideas are wrong. But if you learn these signs you should be able to communicate with any signing Deaf person in Australia.
To get the most out of this course, it would be great if you can do it with a friend, so you have someone to practise with. Ask if someone else in your household or someone you see regularly can join you. Most lessons have around ten signs to learn – easy to pick up in a single session, and to practise during the week.
A note to Deaf people: Already, as I launch this course, I realise that I have missed many basic words that should be included. I’ve missed entire topics, like sport, because I don’t talk about them much. I would like to invite other Deaf signers to contribute lessons. Film a short video of yourself signing slowly and clearly enough for a non-signer to copy, add a list of vocab, and if appropriate, include some notes as well. Upload it to YouTube and paste a link to it in the comments. Later, I’ll update this course to include any submissions. Feel free to include alternate signs from the ones I’ve given.
A note to hearing people: If there are any signs you’d like to know, please leave your request in the comments. Hopefully then someone will add a video to answer your request. There are also other online resources for learning Auslan, here and here and here. And if you’d like to go to a live class, you’ll find links to them for all states in Australia here.
Want to practise using flash cards? Lee Engelstad, a student of this course, has been making flashcards based on my videos which help you practise individual signs. You can download the flashcards here. Lee will be adding more flashcards over time. If anyone else would like to team up with Lee to make them, just hit reply to my video and I’ll put you in touch with each other. Many thanks, Lee, for your great contribution to this course.
Alright, let’s dive in and get started…
If you can fingerspell you can communicate with any Deaf person – just spell out every word.
When you fingerspell, your dominant hand (the one you write with) does most of the moving, and the subordinate hand forms the base positions. In the video I’m fingerspelling with my left hand, so if you are right handed, you should do the signs mirror-image to me.
Take care that you don’t bend your fingers back unnaturally while fingerspelling. Make each letter smooth – for example, you don’t need to shrug your shoulders or take a deep breath for each letter – work on allowing them to flow naturally.
Practise fingerspelling the alphabet until you are confident with all the letters. A good way to help make your fingerspelling smooth is to spell out the lyrics to a favourite song. It can seem incredibly cumbersome at first, but if you practise it, it will become smooth. Eventually, you may be able to spell fast enough that you can do it along with the song while it plays in real time. If you drive, practising fingerspelling at the traffic lights is a great habit!
Also practise reading back fingerspelling from a friend. Learning to read back words is actually harder than learning the letters in the first place. It takes practise! Use context and what you know about your conversation to help you work out what the word might be.
The signs in this video will help you learn to greet a deaf person.
This is the vocab I’ve shown you:
- How are you? (this is one sign)
- So’s so
- Please/thank you (use this sign for both please and thank you)
You’ll notice my facial expression changes with each sign. Facial expression is very important in Auslan – practise using appropriate expressions for your signs.
With a friend, practise greeting each other in Auslan. Introduce yourself and fingerspell your name. Through the next week, notice when you feel any of the above feelings, and do that sign to yourself.
How to remember vocab and concepts
The critical time for the human brain to forget what it’s learnt is during the first twenty-four hours after acquiring new knowledge. Studies have shown that approximately one hour after learning something, most students can remember about eighty percent of the content. Four hours after learning, they remember less than fifty percent. The next day they remember as little as ten percent. My study recommendations are based on this understanding.
Every time you learn a new piece of vocab, write down the English word. This will remind you that you know this sign so you can practise it. If you feel you need to, write down any information about how to execute the sign, but position this on the page so that it can be covered up for testing yourself.
Watch the video, then practise signing the lists of vocab beneath it. One hour later, come back and try again, without watching the video. After practising, watch the video again and correct your signs where needed. Repeat this twice more if possible. Do it just before you go to sleep when you are tired, and again when you first wake up and are still groggy – in this semi-conscious state, the brain seems to learn well. Do it a few more times that day, and then a couple of times a week for a while.
I use Studyblue, where you can program your own flashcards for testing. Study blue is available as an iPhone app and in your browser, and is a great way to quickly prompt yourself to practise a sign. It even tracks which ones you need more practise with and gives you extra practise at those.
Learn frequently used little words in Auslan – Australian Sign Language
Here are some Auslan signs that are often used in conversation:
- Lots/too much
Learn Auslan signs when asking questions – Australian Sign Language
Use these Auslan signs when asking questions:
- How much
- How many
In Auslan, the grammar is different from English. When asking a question, the W-word goes last. For example, when asking ‘When did you eat?”, you would sign ‘YOU EAT WHEN?’ To ask “Where do you live?” you sign ‘YOU LIVE WHERE?’
You’ll notice in these examples that I have omitted ‘did’ and ‘do’. In Auslan, words such as “and”, “to”, “a”, “the”, “it”, “be”, “are” etc. are not used. Simply delete them from the sentence.
Sometimes in Auslan, the W-word goes both first and last. This is known as bracing. E.g. WHO WASH-DISHES WHO?
There is no time when the W-word is first, but not last, the way it is in English.
For this week, practise asking questions. If you don’t know the signs for the vocab you want to use, fingerspell the words. By fingerspelling words you don’t know, you create a space in your brain for them, so when you learn the sign for that word you will remember it more easily.
Learn frequently used little words 2 in Auslan – Australian Sign Language
Here are some more signs that are often used in conversation:
In the video I signed ‘sorry’ with a few too many shakes. Just moving your hand twice will do the job.
Learn Auslan – Some words to indicate purpose
Here are some common signs that indicate purpose:
- Don’t want
- Don’t have (here I demonstrate the handshape I’m using)
- Can’t be bothered (you’ll see that sometimes a whole English phrase is captured with a single sign)
In the video I signed ‘prefer’ with several flicks. But really, it should be just two flicks.
Tip to include Deaf people…
Let me tell you a little story about my own experiences…
Back when I was in a community circus troupe, we would do warm up exercises before every show. They were designed to help us connect as a group, as well as help us prepare physically for the show.
However, many of the games were difficult for me. Such as when we had to walk around the space, and the director would call out a number. We’d have to form groups of that number of people. Anyone who didn’t make it to a group was out. No prizes for guessing I was out first time, every time. Eventually I asked the director if we could change the game a little: maybe instead of yelling out a number, she could stamp her foot on the floor, and then hold up the appropriate number of fingers on her hand. That way, I figured, no-one would be at a disadvantage. It surely wouldn’t be a problem for the hearing people to play by these rules.
But she wasn’t up for that. Instead she arranged another student to walk beside me, and tell me the number when she called it out. In practise, that meant the other student quickly hauled me into a group of an appropriate number, because there wasn’t time for her to communicate it and still get into a group herself. I ended up feeling ‘special’, having to walk with my ‘aid’, and I was a bit embarrassed that it meant she couldn’t play properly either.
In the end, the warm up games became so awkward that I extricated myself and did my own private warm up. It meant that I missed out on the connection with others in the group. But I was more comfortable with that than with the solutions the director came up with. I felt lucky that a couple of other students joined me in my private warm up, as a protest against my lack of inclusion.
I think the reason the director was unable to change her game was because she had established her way of working and she knew it worked, and didn’t want to mess with it. I get that.
But my challenge to you, when you are in a position that involves thinking about including others, is to be prepared to shake things up, in order to accommodate everyone. Surely there’s some way you can set up a group culture, game, experience, outting, in such a way that everyone can participate and no-one needs to feel weird or left out. If you have people with conflicting needs, that’s going to take some creativity. Maybe you split the group into two and have two slightly different activities running at the same time. This doesn’t just apply to teachers and directors. It applies to everyone – to kids playing games with other kids, to organising a celebration dinner..
Whatever, I ask you, be creative, try something new, think outside the box, and make sure EVERYONE can join in.
Learn Auslan – Signs for babies (and adults too)
It’s quite popular for parents who don’t sign themselves to teach their babies some signs. This means babies can communicate before they are able to speak. This lesson and the next two have signs that are helpful when communicating with young children, though they are also good signs for anyone to know. When I taught in a kindergarten, these were the most helpful words that allowed us to communicate with very young children.
- Sleep (I show you two signs for this)
- Awake/Wake up
Finish and more are the most useful signs – as these are abstract concepts that children often want to communicate but cannot. At a meal time, always ask if your child has finished, using the sign. If they haven’t, sign ‘more’. When they do finish, confirm it by signing ‘finish’ yourself. By doing this every time, your child will quickly learn the meaning of the words.
I should have included the sign for ‘toilet’. Luckily you don’t need a video for that. It’s just the letter T, fingerspelled twice: ‘TT’.
Learn Auslan – Animals
A great way to get children interested in signing is to teach them the signs for animals.
- Dog (pat your thigh twice)
Learn Auslan – Transport
Kids love learning and using transport signs:
- Ride a bike
- Airport (sorry, the subtitle says ‘landing’. This sign is used for both ‘landing’ and ‘airport’)
Other signs that kids often embrace are colours and foods – they are covered in other lessons. For our next lesson, though, we’ll get back to signs commonly used by adults.
I was a bit over-enthusiastic when signing some of these. While signing like this is not really ‘wrong’ and Deaf people will still understand you, it would be correct to sign ‘run’ with just two rotations of my arm, and ‘ride a bike’ should also be two cycles of pedaling with my fingers, and ‘car’ should be two rotations of my fists. ‘Bus’ should be two twists of the steering wheel. My apologies that these videos aren’t perfect – I hope they’ll still help you learn.
Learn Auslan – Deafness and sign language
Here are some signs about being deaf and using Auslan (Australian sign language):
- Auslan (Australian sign language)
- Alphabet (A-Z)
- Lock your voice/voice off
- Oral (this is also the sign for lipread)
There are some words and phrases here that aren’t commonly used in mainstream English.
People who aren’t deaf are referred to as ‘hearing’. Deaf people who don’t use sign language, communicating with speech and lipreading, are described as ‘oral’. I grew up oral and learnt to sign when I was eighteen – this is a common situation for Deaf people in Australia.
Fingerspelling refers to manually spelling out the letters of words. If you don’t know the sign for a word, fingerspell it. In Auslan, fingerspelling is commonly used for names and places. Some words, such as ‘cream’ are always fingerspelled, and the fingerspelled version becomes a sort of ‘sign’ for that word. There are some English words for which there is no equivalent Auslan sign. In this case, you could fingerspell the word, though more fluent signers will usually find a way to visually convey the meaning of the word using Auslan signs.
Lock your voice: since Auslan has its own grammar, trying to speak English while signing can be challenging, and also make your signs difficult to understand. It’s common in Auslan to refer to ‘turning off your voice’ or ‘locking your voice’ which means that you don’t speak – just sign. However, if you are speaking English with a group of hearing people, and there is a Deaf person present, it is polite to sign whatever words you can, even if it’s not using correct Auslan grammar, so that the Deaf person can get an idea of what you are talking about.
Deaf dilemma – to laugh or not?
When I was a kid, I always laughed along. I didn’t even know I did it. I survived by copying faces. Someone was upset, I’d make sympathetic faces while they spoke to me. Someone was excited, I’d let out a little excited yelp too.
I didn’t even realise I did this until I was in my late teens. And when I did, it occurred to myself that I was doing myself a disservice. By copying faces, it gave people the impression that I understood what was being said. If instead, I gave them a quizzical expression, I’d be more likely to get an actual explanation.
I set about trying to break my habit. It’s deeply ingrained. I still do it sometimes, but mostly I try to be more honest about when I have and haven’t understood.
But it’s really difficult when I’m standing in a group, say, of people I don’t know that well, but whom I hope to get to know and want to make a good impression on. They’re all laughing. If I stand there, blank-faced, it feels incredibly rude. But it’s also often not right to interrupt them and demand that they explain, especially if we’ve only just met. And yet, if I laugh along, that gives them the impression I understand, and it doesn’t let them know that if this relationship is going to work, I’m going to need a bit more information.
It’s tricky. I don’t have an answer for how us Deaf people should handle this situation. I just wanted to raise some awareness about it.
But, if you’re with a Deaf person and the group starts laughing, maybe you’ll consider leaning over to explain.
Learn Auslan – Communication
Here are some signs about communication:
Learn Auslan – Pronouns
Learn Auslan pronouns. In Auslan, pronouns are not gender-specific. Mostly, they involve pointing at a person or object.
- Me (use this for ‘I’ as well)
- That/he/she/it (I show three examples of pointing.)
When using these words in conversation, point to the person or thing. If the person or thing is not there, invent a location for them them in space and make sure you continue to point to the same spot for the rest of the conversation.
You might notice that it can be pretty hard to understand sign language if you come in on a conversation in the middle. That’s because often a speaker will set up spaces and words at the beginning of a conversation, and then just do a lot of pointing to convey meaning after that.
Learn Auslan – More frequently used words
Here are some more signs that are often used in conversation:
- Clever (I show the handshape – thumb up)
In the video, I’m a bit over-enthusiastic in signing ‘dangerous’. Really, doing two shakes of my hand is more correct. Note, this is similar to the sign for ‘sorry’, but with ‘sorry’, your fingers are more spread out. Also, when I do the sign for ‘enough’ I should have just done two rotations.
International travel as a Deaf person
I thought I’d write a post about my experiences with international travel as a Deaf person. I find it surprising, how very different it feels to be Deaf in different places. Culture changes everything.
My favourite Deaf travel story
Let me start with my favourite Deaf travel story… I was travelling with my partner Paula, and as we checked in they figured out I was Deaf. There was some kerfuffle but we were released into the wilds of the airport. As we waited at the gate, Paula nudged me and told me. “There’s an announcement over the loudspeaker. Can all Deaf people and parents with children please come to the gate now to board first.” As you’d expect, there was a flurry of parents and kids heading to the gate. But strangely enough… no Deaf people.
This announcement highlights something I encounter over and over again. Well-meaning people who attempt to cater for my needs, but who haven’t actually thought about what it means to be Deaf.
A first encounter with Deafness
Let me tell you about Joe, who I met in a shop in France. He said something to me, which I didn’t understand, and my friend Jenine explained to him that I’m Deaf. No worries. Conversation with Jenine goes on. He asked her how we were enjoying the music festival.
She explained that actually we weren’t attending the music festival. “But why not? It’s free. You should go to the concert tonight.”
“Well Asphyxia can’t hear it.”
This hit Joe hard. Hand to his heart, sorrow on his face. He turned to me. “You can’t hear MUSIC?! But what is life without music?” (Or something.. the facial expression said it all – I didn’t catch his words.)
I shrugged. “It’s ok. I’m happy as it is.”
Then Joe has a deep idea. “You know, you could get a bionic ear. Have you thought about that? Then you could hear music.”
Let’s just pause here for a moment. Does Joe really believe I’ve gone my entire life, without it occurring to me until now, that the bionic ear (or a cochlear implant) is a possibility? Does he really think that now he’s suggested it, I’m going to go home and look into the idea? And, for that matter, does he think he’s the first to come up with such wisdom?
In fact, this is something I find intensely irritating, the need to discuss, regularly, with perfect strangers, the intimate details of what operations I might choose to have. I have, in the past, explained to people like Joe, that actually, a cochlear implant or bionic ear would do nothing for me since my ears work fine. It’s the nerves connecting my ears to my brain that don’t work. Which means I’d need a nerve implant in my brain. Forget it – I ain’t letting any surgeon poke around in there. But I’m sick and tired of explaining my medical situation to strangers.
My friend Anna came up with a marvellous response:
“Have you thought about having botox? I feel it would really help your situation.”
But sadly I can’t bring myself to use it. Joe meant well. He just hadn’t thought about Deafness before and I had the great joy of participating while he had his first, elementary encounter with the concept.
Yeah, so that’s Joe, in France. There’s Joes all over Australia too – I meet them all the time. It may well have been a Joe who made that announcement over the loudspeaker at the boarding gate.
Being Deaf in Norway and Denmark
Contrast that with my experience in Norway and Denmark. For the first time ever in my life, I was actually treated like a normal person. I found out recently that in Norway they teach the finer points of knitting and yarn management in schools. I reckon they must also do a unit or two on Deafness, because they seem to know that:
a) being Deaf does not mean you are stupid
b) rather than expecting Deaf people to lipread you so you can carry on as normal, you should attempt to communicate in a more visual way, such as through mime or writing
c) you don’t need to apologise to anyone for their Deafness, nor discuss their medical needs, nor even make a big deal about it at all.
The response, when I told a person in Denmark or Norway that I was Deaf was “Oh, right.” They’d then grab a piece of paper and write to me, or else point and mime to clarify whatever we were attempting to communicate about. And nothing was a big deal. I didn’t need to witness anyone’s heartbreak that I can’t hear the birds twittering or the free piano concert.
The finer points of Deafness seem to be common knowledge
In fact, even the finer points of Deafness seemed to be common knowledge. When I arrived to stay with my AirBnB host, she was already aware that Deaf people don’t tend to know how much noise they make. (Paula is always complaining about how loud I am in the kitchen, or how I inadvertently slam doors – because I can’t hear myself to self-monitor.) Daisy’s tour of her apartment, as she showed me how to use the shower and how to jiggle the key just so, included a recommendation that I not rustle the cutlery in the drawer as it’s particularly loud, and there’s a certain door that is very noisy so I should make the effort to close it quietly.
Wow. I’ve never met a person in Australia with that much awareness, other than those within the Deaf community. What was even more astounding is that Daisy did not proceed to tell me how she acquired her knowledge of Deafness. She didn’t say that she’d once had a Deaf guest who was incredibly noisy, nor that her mum’s second cousin can’t hear. The Deaf thing was just something to be dealt with along with everything else. Unremarkable. What a bloody relief.
Don’t expect me to lipread
In fact, I didn’t realise how much of a relief it was, until I landed in France, which is much more like Australia when it comes to responding to Deaf people. Whenever I told someone I was Deaf they’d point to their lips and expect me to lipread. When I made it clear I hadn’t a hope in hell of lipreading French, that was the end of the conversation. Well, from my end it was. From their end it was far from over. They proceeded to speak to me in French, at full speed, often turning away without making eye contact, and somehow presumed I’d understand.
The eye contact was appalling. I often communicate with a mix of mime and body language, but getting the French people to look at me so I could do so was quite a headache.
Talk to ME! (Not my companion)
At one point, Jenine was talking to our AirBnB host in France, and I had a question. Rather than put Jenine in the position where she had to ask the question on my behalf, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I waited for what I hoped was an appropriate pause in the conversation, hoping I could catch the host before she turned away. Eventually I handed her the piece of paper with my question.
Her response? Even though I had a pen handy so she could write back, she didn’t even look at me. She simply made her reply to Jenine. They talked for a bit and then the host left.
What the fuck? Jenine did her best to explain. I find this so rude. What if I had had a follow up question? Why couldn’t the woman have communicated directly with me? It was around this time I gave up trying to communicate effectively in France, and started to assume I would just be ignored, which was mostly the case.
Being Deaf can be ‘special’
When I travelled to Morocco, it was different again. At that time I was with my partner, Paula. I’ve been told that there’s a Muslim belief that if you are born with a disability, then you are closer to God. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. But a lot of people liked to touch me, for good luck. Rather than being ignored, I was special. Red carpet and VIP treatment. Everyone assumed that Paula was my carer, travelling with me simply to serve me. And apparently it was natural that, as my ‘carer’ she would have to sleep in the same bed as me. Presumably to minister to my needs 24/7. Wow. If I haggled at the markets, I got the best price. Even if I didn’t, I’d be given something for free.
The freebies are nice, I’ll grant that. So are the low prices (I get both of these to an extent in Australia too). But what I liked best of all, by a long, long shot, was that little taste of just being an ordinary person in Norway and Denmark. That was good, SO GOOD, I could almost cry thinking about it.
How to improve the situation
And that leads me to think, how good it would be, here in Australia, if we were to have a unit on Deafnes, and on other disabilities too, as part of our school curriculum. Or even better, if we had teachers out there who modelled all sorts of diversity, so that students could see and experience for themselves that actually, we ARE just ordinary people, and in many cases, our Deafness or disability is not even the most remarkable thing about us.
I do teach a lecture on this at Melbourne Uni, and I love it because I know that those students, who will shortly be teachers, will go out into the world ready to respond more appropriately if they meet a Deaf person, or a Deaf student walks into their classroom. But we need more than this. We need this stuff to be taught to everyone. It doesn’t take long. One lesson is enough to get the Joes of the world thinking so that they are ready when a Deaf person enters their shop.
Learn Auslan – People
Here are some signs you can use to refer to the people in your life:
• Mother (MM)
• Father (FF)
• Son (same as the sign for ‘boy’)
• Daughter (DD)
• Children (sign little, then pat the top of each child. For child, just one pat. For three children, do three pats.)
• Adult (literally translates as ‘head high’)
Typical stupid conversations about Deafness
This video is hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s so true. It’s not just interpreters who have these kinds of stupid, STUPID conversations with people who have never thought about what it means to be Deaf. Deaf people have them too… all the time. I can really relate to this. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had to respond to people like this lecturer, while trying to remain polite and gracious. I wish we had some basic education about Deafness for all school children, so that by the time they are grown up, they have sorted out how to deal with Deaf people and interpreters without being complete #!@%wits.
Lipreading is not about ‘reading’ the shape of the lips
There’s a misconception that lipreading is just like reading a book. You look at the mouth and read, right?
But no, it’s far, far more complicated than that. I have to queue up words in my mind, invent possibilities that fit the facial expression, body language, approximate number of syllables etc etc. Sometimes there are a couple of possibilities, and I hold both in my mind simultaneously, waiting for it to become clear. While I’m doing this, collecting possibilities and sifting through them all, I need to keep the conversation going. So I smile and nod and say ‘mmm,’ and ‘yep…’ as appropriate. If I don’t do that, the speaker stops, and we haven’t gotten anywhere.
Sometimes though, I get right to the end, and I realise that none of the possibilities work. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. And then I have to say, ‘Sorry, can you go right back to the start?’
And you might wonder, well why were you nodding and smiling and saying yes all along when I didn’t understand. But that’s because it’s how lipreading works. It’s not a lie. It’s the only practical way to do it.
It can take a whole minute or two after the speaker finishes, that it suddenly comes to me what was said.
As you can imagine, this is incredibly hard work. I have an hour of lipreading in me a day, tops. After that, fatigue sets in. And if I go too far, pushing myself for maybe 3 hours, I am WIPED afterwards, and my head pounds. It can literally take me days to recover.
This is why, even though I’m a pretty competent lipreader, I prefer other modes of conversation.
Learn Auslan – Feelings
Here are some signs that describe emotions:
• Feel / feelings
• Don’t like (this is the sign for like but with your facial expression you show the opposite)
• Cranky/bad mood
• Bored (for the handshape, touch forefinger and thumb together to make a ring)
• Pissed off (same handshape as ‘bored’)
In Auslan, facial expression is very important. A conversation cannot be understood by watching the hands alone. You will see in the video my face changes with every sign. When you are using these signs in conversation, your face needs to show the emotion for the signs to make sense.
In fact, the facial expression can inform the meaning of the sign. The sign LIKE is used for both LIKE and DON’T-LIKE, depending on your facial expression.
It can be difficult for English-speakers to loosen up and learn to use appropriate facial expressions in Auslan – it can feel very over-the-top. However, for Auslan signers, it can seem bizarre that an English-speaking newsreader on television will describe terrible events using a perfectly bland face.
Practise signing the above vocab, using appropriate facial expressions.
Interview with Asphyxia by Ange and Kate
A little while ago, some Auslan students asked if they could make a video about me and my life, for a school assignment. Here it is – a lil guided tour of my home, my art studio, my journals, and my life as both a Deaf person and an artist. Have a look if you fancy. I think Angelique and Kate did a great job. And thanks to Paula who did a voice-over for those of you who can’t sign.