Fact Sheet: New Zealand Sign Language

Sign language is a combination of hand shapes, facial expressions and body movements

Nearly every country has its own sign language, complete with a unique vocabulary and grammatical structure (the same as any language). New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is the natural language of the Deaf community in Aotearoa New Zealand; so it reflects the country’s culture by including signs for Māori terminology and concepts unique to Aotearoa.

British Sign Language (BSL) was brought to New Zealand by immigrants and since then, NZSL has evolved. NZSL became the second official language of New Zealand in April 2006.

Sign language is a combination of hand shapes, facial expressions and body movements. It is not simply signed representations of spoken words. Like other languages, there are differences in the use of NZSL such as vocabulary, dialect or signing style. However, this does not cause miscommunication between two NZSL users.

Learning NZSL:

How do Deaf people learn NZSL?

For the 10% of Deaf children born to Deaf parents, NZSL is their first language. These children learn to sign from their parents; just as hearing children learn spoken language from their hearing parents.

However, 95% of Deaf people are born to hearing parents, therefore NZSL is not automatically their first language. While some hearing parents do teach their Deaf children NZSL, the majority learn the language at a Deaf school and/ or by interacting with other Deaf people at Deaf education centres, clubs or other Deaf social/sports activities.

Learning NZSL

The best way to learn NZSL is by attending a NZSL class taught by a registered tutor or member of the NZSL Teachers’ Association. Visit teachsign.org.nz for more information.

Other good ways to learn about Deaf culture and NZSL are to visit a Deaf club or attend a Deaf social event.

NZSL is:

  • A true and natural language that conveys information via a wide array of movements and expressions
  • Not based on English or other spoken languages nor is it just finger spelling
  • Not a universal “Deaf” language
  • Unique to NZ and includes Te Reo Māori
  • Not mime or gesture

It consists of a structured system of hand shapes and movements, hand/finger orientations, facial expressions, lip-patterns, and use of space. In spoken languages, ‘body language’, including facial expressions, eye gaze, eyebrow raising and lowering, and head tilts, can add important meaning to what we say. ​ In NZSL, ‘body language’ is important too because it often carries grammatical information.

It is highly valued by the Deaf community because it’s visually accessible. Sign language is not limited to the signs being used. It is a 4D language which uses the whole body, the space around the body and what we call non manual signs. Sign Language doesn’t have a sign for every word but we have a wonderful thing called classifiers where signs can be expanded with handshapes and movements to represent objects, actions, and visual properties of things and situations.

NZSL Week Logo


Each May, Deaf Aotearoa organises NZSL Week – a celebration of one of the country’s official languages, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). NZSL Week helps promote the language as well as raise awareness about New Zealand’s Deaf community and the issues/challenges its members face each day. It also provides an opportunity to advocate for Deaf rights, as defined by the UN’s Convention of Rights of People with Disabilities. NZSL Week is a chance for Deaf New Zealanders to ‘put their hands up’ and be ‘heard’.

NZSL Dictionary Icon

NZSL Dictionary

New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary contains 4500+ multimedia, multilingual dictionary entries.

A “Word of the Day” feature introduces you to a new vocabulary word every day.

All the diagrams are built in to the application so they can be viewed offline. To view the videos, an active Internet connection is required.

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Learn NZSL

Learn NZSL is a free learning portal on New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). NZSL is the language of New Zealand’s Deaf community and an official language of New Zealand. Whether you’re studying NZSL, trying to connect with a Deaf friend, or just having fun with a new language, Learn NZSL has a lot to offer!

Watch, learn and practise how to use NZSL in common situations, shown as nine topics below. Within each topic, you’ll find plenty of videos, resources and exercises to keep you busy. Go through the topics in sequence to get the full story of Learn NZSL.

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Teach Sign

Hub for tutors and learners. Here you can find out about NZSL learning in your area, access homework resources and browse links to other resources.

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