Deaf viewers ask for a hand

People who can hear as well as see Reasonable Doubts (TV3, 9.50pm Saturdays) might be surprised to learn that Deaf New Zealanders can understand deaf lawyer Tessa Kaufman’s sign language little better than they can.

American Sign Language (ASL), used by Deaf actor Marlee Matlin, is a foreign language here. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is related to British, Australian and South African Sign Language. (Deaf Canadians use ASL; Belgium, with two spoken languages, has only one sign language; and Ireland has two sign languages, Protestant and Catholic.)

Marianne Ahlgren proved in her 1985 PhD thesis at Victoria University that NZSL is a fully-fledged language with a large vocabulary of signs - not just 50, as the myth has it. It is not just mime or gesture, and the meanings of most signs are not obvious. Sign order is different from English word-order; the “grammar’ is conveyed by the placement or movement of the signs.

That New Zealand’s own visual language has a place on the visual medium ought to be obvious (other linguistic groups can use radios). Even Reasonable Doubts is better than nothing. My Deaf friends give it the thumbs up.

But the failure of television in New Zealand to provide anything in NZSL is described as “a running sore” by Hilary McCormack, vice-president of the New Zealand Association of the Deaf.

  • Sign Language
  • Technology
  • TV/Media
Reference number:
SignDNA – Deaf National Archive New Zealand, A1993-014
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