New Zealand Sign Language, a unique taonga


Kiwis are being encouraged to learn New Zealand Sign Language as it continues to evolve with new signs being developed to represent Māori concepts.

Ryan Cassidy, executive board member of Deaf Aotearoa and tangata turi – a member of the Māori deaf community, said NZSL was a core part of the deaf community and their identity.

“I think what’s important is to recognise that these are three worlds,” he said of Aotearoa’s three official languages, “with three sets of people – some people who intersect.”

NZSL became an official language in Aotearoa in 2006, being used alongside te Reo and English, and is one of only two native languages in the country.

But the language did not provide full access to the Māori world, Cassidy said.

Signs that already existed could not simply be matched with Māori concepts and, therefore, required new signs to be developed.

“We need people to get behind that, support that, fund that and improve access to tikanga.” It comes as this year’s theme for New Zealand Sign Language Week, which began on Monday, was an Aotearoa where anyone can sign anywhere, aiming to inspire widespread adoption and celebration of NZSL.

NZSL Week was inspired by the vision of the World Federation of the Deaf, emphasising inclusivity and accessibility in communication.

Jon Tai-Rakena, Deaf Aotearoa NZSL Week Hero for 2024, TikTok creator and sign language teacher at Ko Taku Reo, said NZSL was a taonga and unique.

But as tangata turi, not everyone had the opportunity to grow up working between the Māori world and deaf world.

Access to their people and histories had been a slow journey and many turi did not have access to their iwi, their marae, he said.

“Words in Māori come from a context, they come with different meanings and in NZSL there may not be equivalence so communities have to get their head around that.

“Part of that is about getting us together so we can talk through these kind of issues and be on a pathway towards that learning and to develop our knowledge of tikanga.”

It required Māori, hearing people and Māori deaf people to come together, he said.

“In some ways I’m a little bit fed up with having to be patient … we do feel a bit invisible and I feel like the time is now for Māori deaf people.”

It also applied to other deaf people who might be Samoan or Tongan for example, Tai-Rakena said. It was important to have more interpreters and from different backgrounds.

“Then maybe we can access our worlds more easily,” he said.

“I think if other people out there learnt our language, we would feel appreciated, I think we would feel culturally recognised, I think we would feel connection to other people in our country, that would be beautiful.”

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