Sign language is a valuable addition

I was scrolling through Facebook, as is my wont, when I came across a video of the inimitable Jacinda Ardern, signing out a greeting in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).

As usual, our Prime Minister was warm, eloquent and engaging, although this time it wasn't her voice that reached me. It was the brisk, yet clear movements of her hands and fingers that spoke to me.

New Zealand Sign Language Week is being held between May 6 and 12 this year. The theme is ''My Language, My Place'' and the week is all about raising awareness of New Zealand's deaf community, as well as providing a platform for deaf people to celebrate and promote their language and culture.

In one of the many primary schools I attended in my youth, a classmate had a hearing impairment and communicated primarily via NZSL. Instead of having this boy rely solely on his carer for conversations and translating, our teachers taught the entire school NZSL. We would have weekly sessions wherein first we learned the alphabet, then the colours, our names, household items and so on. To my 10-year-old self, it was enormously exciting learning a new way of communication. I would go home and practise my new vocabulary with my younger brothers and sisters, smiling as they tried to contort their chubby little fingers into the correct configurations.

You don't have to be a primary or secondary school teacher to know inclusion is important. Every child across Aotearoa deserves the right to be treated equally, to be heard, to have their voices (be it literally or through the means of writing or signing) amplified.

Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not exactly English spelt out on the hands. Rather, it is a different language altogether, with a new structure and way of using space. Since April 2006, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL, Maori: Te Reo Rotarota) has been an official language of New Zealand, although the rights and obligations to use the language are restricted to court proceedings.

NZSL originates in part from British sign language (BSL), and like other natural sign languages, it was devised by and for deaf people. NZSL uses the same two-handed manual alphabet as BSL and Auslan (Australian Sign Language). NZSL incorporates more lip-patterns alongside hand and facial movements to indicate signs and meanings than BSL. Moreover, NZSL's vocabulary incorporates te reo Maori and Maori concepts such as tangi and marae.

Even if one's children are not deaf, parents should consider introducing sign language early on in a child's life to support language development. Indeed, hand-eye co-ordination usually develops earlier than speech skills. Having eight younger siblings, I have seen many toddlers throw their bottles across the room, or gesture wildly towards something edible or brightly coloured. Surely, if my baby brother can hurl a Lego block with terrifying accuracy across the room at me, he can also learn how to sign basic words such as ''milk'', ''eat'' and ''teddy''.

NZSL is gradually being embraced by educational institutions across New Zealand, becoming part of the bilingual/bicultural approach used in public schools since 1994. Indeed, Victoria University has courses in NZSL, and AUT teaches a bachelor of arts course in NZSL interpreting.

Primarily, the teaching of NZSL in school fosters inclusion for deaf children and those with developmental disabilities. Without a common knowledge and understanding of sign language, those children who communicate primarily through sign language will need to constantly have an interpreter around them to communicate with the outside world.

Sign language helps to bridge the two hemispheres of the brain, providing the child with two ways of accessing a word and its meaning. I personally found learning NZSL as a child helped with my manual dexterity. As with any language, learning NZSL is much harder to do as a hearing adult. Education in this beautiful language therefore ought to start early.

In cases of cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, NZSL may also be useful.

It is also a helpful tool for children with autism who may struggle with the spoken language. Numerous studies indicate sign language helps with the development of speech, as well as memory retention and social interactions. More importantly, sign language allows for silence. For people with sensory overload, this silence is often utterly necessary for functioning in a social environment.

Moreover, sign language may be employed in any instance wherein speech is impossible. Have you contracted laryngitis or lost your voice by some other means? Use sign language. Talking on your cellphone but want to signal to your brother that he should pick up some fish and chips for you, too? Use sign language. Walking out in the bush when you spot a beautiful bird and want to tell your friend? Use sign language. The possibilities are endless.

I am not naive. New Zealand schools are incredibly busy places, and all the teachers I know already have a lot on their plate. But surely weekly lessons would foster a love of the language, and would encourage inclusivity and understanding among children, regardless of hearing ability.

In October of 2017, my father had a near-fatal stroke. For the first time in his life he could not speak. I could see the frustration in his eyes as he willed his tongue to move, his fingers to pick up the pen and write out his thoughts. Slowly and painstakingly, I taught him the manual NZSL alphabet. His relief was palpable.

New Zealand Sign Language is an incredibly beautiful language. It is valuable, fun and ought to be taught in schools across the nation. More than 24,000 Kiwis use NZSL daily.

Let's increase this number.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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