Australian sign language (Auslan) is the sign language that was developed by people who are deaf in Australia to communicate with others. Sign languages use manual communication and gestures instead of sound to express the speaker’s thoughts and meaning. This involves a combination of hand shapes, facial expressions and the orientation and movement of hands, arms or body. There is no one universal sign language.

Like other sign languages, Auslan is equal in complexity and expression to spoken language and can express nuance, force and subtlety, as well as concrete information. It is not just English conveyed through signs or a manual code, but a distinct visual language that has existed as long as there have been Australians who are deaf.

The evolution of Auslan

In the 19th century, British, Irish and Scottish people who were deaf migrated to Australia and brought their sign languages with them. Over time, an Australian sign language developed its own unique characteristics. Like any other living language, Auslan continues to evolve over time to meet the communication needs of people who are deaf.

Just as people who can hear in different countries speak different languages, people who are deaf around the world also use different sign languages.

Due to historical influences, Auslan is more like British Sign Language (BSL) than American Sign Language (ASL).

Elements of sign language

Sign languages use a variety of ways to convey meaning. Elements combine with one another to construct the signs on which the language is based. They include:
  • Hand shapes – Auslan currently has 37 major hand shapes and 25 variations.
  • Orientation – signs can be oriented to four different sides of the body, with the palm and hand facing different directions.
  • Location – signs may be placed in different locations in relation to the body.
  • Movement – this includes head, arm and hand movement. Movements can be large or small, depending on the sign.
  • Expression – this is as important as intonation when speaking. It can include head and facial movements, and facial expression. Many standard gestures, such as shaking the head for no or raising the eyebrows to form a question, are used to convey emotion, emphasis and intensity.
It is important to use all elements of a sign language correctly. When there is no established sign, the alphabet is spelled out on the fingers (for example, when using jargon or a person’s name).

The structure of Auslan

Auslan has its own distinct grammatical structure. This structure is seen (visual) rather than heard (auditory).

The following example shows the difference:
  • ‘I saw a beautiful black cat this morning.’ (English sentence construction)
  • ‘Black cat beautiful this morning I saw.’ or ‘Cat black I saw this morning beautiful.’ (Auslan sentence construction).

Learning Auslan

Many technical and further education (TAFE) institutions and organisations like Vicdeaf offer Auslan classes. A dictionary of Auslan, written by Trevor Johnston, forms the basis for the Auslan Signbank interactive dictionary. These resources provide a lot of information about the language and individual signs.

Other forms of communication for people who are deaf

The way a person communicates depends on the degree of sensory loss they experience, their communication ability and their preference. Auslan is a complete sign language, while signed English is a sign language that directly represents spoken English.

Other forms of manual communication have been developed to aid communication for people with specific needs. For example, key word sign (previously known as MAKATON) is a basic communication system that uses a simplified version of signed English to work with people with communication (speech) difficulties.

Where to get help

  • Vicdeaf Tel. (03) 9473 1111, TTY: (03) 9473 1199, toll free for country callers Tel. 1300 780 225, TTY: 1300 780 235
  • Deaf Australia – Sydney Office Tel. (02) 9871 8400 (TTY only) or Brisbane Office Tel. (07) 3357 8266 (TTY) or (07) 3357 8266 (Voice)
  • Sign Language Communications Victoria Tel. 1800 287 526 or (03) 9473 1117, (03) 9473 1143 (TTY only)

Things to remember

  • Sign languages rely on the use of space, movement and facial expression to express all the nuances, force and subtleties of language.
  • Australian sign language (Auslan) is recognised in the Australian Government Language Policy as a community language.
  • Auslan has evolved like any spoken language and developed its own unique characteristics.

More information

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Victorian Deaf Society

Last updated: August 2012

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