Deaf Studies Research Unit, Victoria University of Wellington

The Deaf Studies Research Unit (DSRU) was established at VUW in 1995. Its roots go back to the research of Dr Marianne Collins-Ahlgren who wrote the first major description of the grammar of NZSL in 1989 as a PhD thesis (Aspects of New Zealand Sign Language), under the supervision of Professor Graeme Kennedy in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. Collins-Ahlgren’s research named and validated the language of the NZ Deaf community. As a result of changing consciousness of NZSL, the Deaf Association of New Zealand approached Professor Kennedy for support to make a dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language. The Dictionary project was undertaken at VUW by a team of deaf and hearing researchers in collaboration with the Deaf community, between 1991-1997, and the Deaf Studies Research Unit was formalised during that time.

DSRU Research Projects

Filming of the NZSL Online Dictionary. Rohan Satyanand, David McKee, and Victoria Lessing.

The DSRU has conducted a variety of research projects with funding from the university and external grants, including: an NZSL grammar, NZSL corpus development, deaf children and deaf paraprofessionals in mainstream schools, sociolinguistic variation in NZSL (Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of NZ); Deaf experiences in the Christchurch earthquakes, an Online Dictionary of NZSL (funded by Tertiary Education Commission), and the ethnolinguistic vitality of NZSL.

Certificate in Deaf Studies: Teaching NZSL

2015 Deaf Studies students, taken during the DEAF 801 paper (Deaf Culture and Society).

The programme Certificate in Deaf Studies: Teaching NZSL (CDS) was established by David McKee and Rachel McKee in 1997 to enable Deaf people to study their own language and learn how to teach it. NZSL teacher training has made NZSL tuition more available and consistent in the community, and contributed to Deaf community capacity for advocacy and leadership.

The CDS programme is one of the only university level qualifications for deaf people to teach New Zealand Sign Language. The CDS programme is delivered in intensive modules to enable participants from around NZ to attend part-time. Teaching is designed for Deaf learners, drawing on their life experience and teaching and assessment is conducted in NZSL. This lowers the barriers that have excluded many Deaf people from university study.

Between 1997 and 2014, 12 groups have gone through the CDS programme. A total of 143 individuals have enrolled in the courses, and 78 have completed the qualification. Graduates have gone into the adult education sector, professional and paraprofessional roles in deaf education, Deaf community development, and some have continued to further tertiary study.

Dictionaries of New Zealand Sign Language

The first NZSL dictionary was produced in 1985 by Dan Levitt, 'Introduction to New Zealand Sign Language'.
Inside the dictionary.

The first NZSL dictionary was produced in 1985 by Dan Levitt who led the first training of sign language interpreters. During the course, Deaf people were video-recorded and their signs were described and compiled in a dictionary of 1200 entries. Levitt’s photographic dictionary features many older signers, making it a valuable record of early signs that have since become rare. The 1985 NZSL dictionary popularised the name ‘NZSL’.


1997 Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language

1997: Dictionary launch at Victoria University, Wellington. From left: Bert Dugdale, Pat Dugdale, Shaun Fahey, Graeme Kennedy and David Moskovitz. (Source: Talking Hands, Listening Eyes)
Concise dictionary, published 2002.

The next dictionary was a collaborative effort between the Deaf Association and Victoria University, led by Professor Graeme Kennedy. The 1997 Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language contains 4,500 entries. It was completed in seven years, comprising 20,000 hours of work by paid staff and uncounted voluntary hours by Deaf community members. Deaf groups were recorded conversing about various topics, and providing signs for specific concepts. From the videos, signs were identified, re-filmed, and viewed by groups in three regions to validate whether each sign was recognized. Validated signs were phonetically analysed using the Hamburg Notation System (HamNoSys), which allowed the dictionary to be organised by handshapes and locations of signs. A Concise dictionary of 2,000 signs was published in 2002.

Online Dictionary of NZSL

Front: Sara Pivac Alexander, David McKee, and Rachel McKee. Back: Rohan Satyanand, Victoria Lessing, Mark Berry, and Mike Rathbone.
NZSL Online Dictionary project staff at the launch of the Online Dictionary in 2011. Front: Dave Moskovitz, Sophia Jarlov, David McKee, Rachel McKee, and Micky Vale. Back: Darryl Alexander, Sara Pivac Alexander, Mark Berry, Shaun Fahey, Sonia Pivac, and Wenda Walton.

In 2008, the Deaf Studies Research Unit gained government funding to create an Online Dictionary of NZSL. The content was based on the print dictionary, with the addition of video examples for all signs, and some new entries to capture signs that had developed in the 20 years since the 1997 dictionary was made. NZSL Online is particularly designed for learners, and it can be searched through English, Māori or visual features of signs.

Can also be found in

  1. 2000
    Video — Donated by Deaf Aotearoa Image of Deaf Aotearoa

    Inside Out: The Art of Signing

    Inside Out produces a programme about New Zealand Sign Language, its value to the Deaf community as well as its artistic forms.

  2. 1987
    Video — Donated by Television New Zealand Archive Image of Television New Zealand Archive

    'Deaf Book': First NZSL dictionary makes it to print

    Dan Levitt’s work on the first NZSL dictionary in 1985 popularised the name, ‘New Zealand Sign Language’. In this news segment, Dan describes the different between the English Signing System and NZSL.

  3. 1996
    Video — Donated by Television New Zealand Archive Image of Television New Zealand Archive

    A look into the new bilingual approach at Kelston Deaf Education Centre

    One of the goals of 1996’s Deaf Awareness Week was to better educate New Zealanders about New Zealand Sign Language, and as part of this, One Network News visited Kelston Deaf Education Centre in Auckland. KDEC which has a new bilingual teaching method using both NZSL and English.

  4. 1997
    Video — Donated by Television New Zealand Archive Image of Television New Zealand Archive

    The modern NZSL dictionary is launched

    The modern dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language has been launched, and the 'Tonight' crew visit Kelston Deaf Education Centre to see Deaf students and their NZSL tutors making good use of the resource.

  5. 1993
    Video — Donated by Television New Zealand Archive Image of Television New Zealand Archive

    Work starts on the modern NZSL dictionary

    A look behind the scenes at the team creating the modern NZSL dictionary including interviews with Kevin Stokes and Graeme Kennedy.