Category Archives: Learn Auslan Online

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – American fingerspelling

I am often asked if sign language is universal.  It’s not.  Auslan came to Australia with English convict Betty Steele, who signed BSL (British sign language).  With years of isolation, Auslan and BSL have both evolved, so that while the languages are similar, they are now quite different.  The Americans got their sign language from France, and French sign language looks very different to Auslan, as the fingerspelling and many of the hand signs are done with one hand instead of two.

If you put two signing people in the same room who don’t know each others’ language, they will work out how to communicate with each other much faster than two hearing/speaking people would.  When I bumped into a group of Deaf women in France one time, despite me not knowing any French sign language and them not knowing any English or Auslan, we worked out how to communicate quite quickly.  Within half an hour we had moved on to abstract concepts like planned obsolescence.

Back to American fingerspelling… in America there is a larger population of Deaf people than in Australia.  They even have a Deaf university.  This means that their language has more opportunities to evolve than ours, and although some people are against this practise, in Auslan we often borrow signs from ASL (American sign language).  Also, several of these borrowed signs, and signs that are considered proper Auslan, are based on handshapes that come from the one-handed American alphabet.  It’s handy to know the alphabet in order to familiarise yourself with these shapes.

Some people who use Auslan will  spell with American sign language if they have only one hand available, because the other is busy holding a drink or something else.  However, when I went to America, I discovered that the actual American letter T is different from the way Australians sign T when they think they are using American fingerspelling!  There may be other letters that are different.  This video shows my best guess for the American alphabet, and the way my friends and I use American fingerspelling:

In the video there are two variations for the letter T – the first one shows how American people actually sign it.  The second one shows how Australians tend to sign it.

Deaf dilemma – to laugh or not?

Deaf dilemma



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.

If you’d like to do your bit to help raise awareness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – Impolite stuff

No language is complete without swear words, toilet words, genitals and sex words. I’ve grouped these together in this video so that parents who are studying this course with their children can decide whether to show them or not.  This doesn’t mean that I think certain body parts are ‘rude’ or ‘impolite’.  The sign for ‘toilet’ is in here – that isn’t a rude sign at all.  I just grouped it here along with signs like ‘poo’ where are considered rude.

Fuck (this is not as rude as the equivalent work ‘fuck’ in English – it’s ruder than saying ‘damn’ but perhaps not quite as rude as saying ‘shit’)
Fuck you (this is offensive and hurtful)
Shit (this is used as a swear word (not to refer to ‘poo’) and it is not nearly as rude as ‘shit’ is in English. It’s more like saying ‘damn’ and you can even say it in somewhat polite company.)
•  Toilet
•  Poo
•  Piss (man)
•  Wee (woman)
•  Vagina
•  Penis
•  Erection (option 1)
•  Erection (option 2 – you can see an element of bragging and humour here!)
•  Sex (this is the formal, polite sign for sex, however, if you are talking informally, you would be likely to show the position – the next three signs give examples of that.)
•  69
•  spoon position
•  sex scissor position
•  cunnilingus (woman)
•  blow job (man)

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – Role Shift

Role shift is used to describe interactions between two or more people or animals.  Its most common use is when describing a conversation you have overseen between two other people, or a conversation you have had with someone previously.  The idea is that you become one speaker, and adopt their position, facial expression and energy, then you say what they were saying, then you change to become the other speaker, with a different position and facial expression, and sign as if you were them.

There are a number of rules associated with the use of role shift, and these may seem very unnatural at first, but become easier with practise.  Warning: role shift is an advanced concept and takes a lot of practise. Here are some rules:

Identify each person first – use classifiers to locate the people in space and say who they each are.
Move shoulders – after you have identified the people, shift your shoulders to “become” each person as they speak.
Use eye gaze – when you are speaking as one of the people you have identified, show them looking at the other person.  If the other person is taller, look up, if the other person is lying on the floor, look down.
Use facial expression – show the expression on the faces of each of the people who are talking.  Make the contrast between the two people as clear as possible.

Using role shift, you should never use the signs for “he said” and “she asked”.  Identify the people you are talking about and then become them, as they converse.

Watch the video to see the following conversation between a mother and her daughter who has just arrived home late.

Mother: (angrily)              Where have you been?

Daughter: (defensive)      Out.

Mother:                             I’ve been waiting up for you, worrying! It’s after twelve o’clock!

Daughter:                         It wasn’t my fault.  I rang for a taxi but it didn’t come.  I had to wait for another one.

Mother:                             Well next time, ring me!

Daughter: (as if her mother is being over protective) Alright.

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – Colloquialisms

These are common Auslan signs which don’t relate specifically to a single English word. Note that many of them have their own lip patterns too.

• Strange/weird
• Finally, at long last
• Too late
• Hopeless
• Oh, now I get it!
• Come on
• What luck this situation occurred!
• Take me home
• How dare you!
• Sprung! / Ah ha! Caught you! (In the video, just before this sign, I start to sign something else – please disregard that!)
• Please yourself
• Relief / phew

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – Lip patterns

In Auslan, the convention is to not mouth or speak the English words and sentences as you are signing, although some Deaf people do this to an extent anyway. For practise, try keeping your mouth closed as you sign. Avoid signing Auslan and verbally speaking English at the same time, as the English will confuse your Auslan grammar, facial expressions, depicting signs etc.

Auslan does, however, have its own lip patterns. These are the mouth shapes Deaf people make when they sign particular words. See the video for the lip patterns for these common words and phrases:


• Finish
• Never seen it / never heard of it
• Strange/weird