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An Dang

The hidden language

by An Dang, Brunswick Secondary College

Many, if not all of you probably have no idea what I just said. Hi, my name is An, I’m 17 years old and today I will be talking to you about the hidden language, Auslan.

Now, imagine as new parents the doctor tells you sorry, your baby is Deaf. How would you feel? Disconnected? Devastated your baby can’t communicate with you or the world. I am telling you it’s not true. The baby will be able to communicate and, if given the right opportunities, will succeed like any other child, thanks to the help of the Australian Sign Language, Auslan.

According to the Australian Network on Disability, 1 in 6 Australians are affected by hearing loss, amongst those, 30 000 are completely Deaf. This means that Australia is lucky enough to have one of the largest deaf communities in the world. Why lucky? Well, often Deaf people are seen as disabled people who need help, however I see Deaf people simply as a distinct community with their own language and culture just like any other community in Australia. If we feel lucky to have the Greeks, the Italians, the Chinese then we should feel equally as lucky to have the Deaf community as part of our rich and diversified society.

I remember the first time I encountered a Deaf person. I was walking down the street when I saw two men drinking coffee while using their hands to communicate. I was so intrigued but I didn’t want to offend them, or worse, embarrass myself, so I walked away. Soon after that, I joined a sign language class, and that’s where it all began.

One thing my teacher taught me that changed the way I think is that Deaf culture is just like hearing culture. They have their own history, their own language. Just like we have Japanese, Vietnamese, and Spanish, they have Japanese Sign Language, Vietnamese Sign Language, and Spanish Sign Language.

So here’s my question. Why do schools teach Chinese, Italian and even Latin, a dead language, and not Auslan? Why do we go overseas on exchange and not for a 14 minute drive to the VicDeaf centre, where you can learn Auslan from a Deaf teacher? Deaf people are in our everyday lives. Deaf bus drivers, Deaf engineers, Deaf students, it just doesn’t make any sense to me that we’re learning to communicate with people from halfway across the world and not yet know how to communicate with our own community. Learning Auslan not only opens you up to a whole new culture, but also helps improve cognitive skills like memory and creativity. There is nothing to lose, you can only gain. So what’s stopping us?

According to a study done in 2013 by Dr. Penicaud from McGill University, auditory deprivation does not affect the development of the brain, however not learning sign language is detrimental to that of a Deaf child. Sign language functions the same as spoken language. The only thing that will affect Deaf people is if the hearing takes away their right to the same opportunity.

Let me give you an example: Judith Wright, a famous Australian poet, was very successful, interestingly because she was Deaf. Deaf people are more direct than hearing people. Instead of seeing it as a limitation, Wright used her deafness as an asset to promote her views very directly and firmly through her poems and became the first Australian woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

If she had been forced to use a language other than her own, she would not have made history and achieved what she did. This shows that Deaf people should not have to have cochlear implants or learn how to lipread just to survive in our world because they are not a problem that needs to be fixed. Help them feel less like an alien in their own country, and recognise them as an Australian, as a human just like us.

Now you may ask why can’t Deaf people just learn to speak, rather than us learning to sign? Well, it’s a question that has been raised before. The Milan Conference in 1880 decided that oralism, meaning teaching deaf people to speak, was a better way to educate the Deaf. So for years, Deaf people were forced to sit on their hands and punished if they did not speak, all the way until the 1970s when the oral method was finally declared a total failure.

Why was that? Imagine trying to teach a Deaf baby to say hello. It’d take months - but how do you expect the baby to quickly replicate a sound they can never hear? On the contrary, we have hands. I bet I could teach you to sign hello in Auslan in 3 seconds. Actually, you already know it. A lot of the signs are already ingrained into everyday body language. Like hello, you, me, good. In fact, humans used gesture to communicate way back, even before the human vocal cords were developed! You just need a little push for the Auslan inside of you to come out, and this is it.

And believe me, it’s not hard. I’ve only been in Australia for 18 months and I’ve done 3 courses and have talked to over 50 people in sign language. If I can do it, so can you.

Now I can’t sum up the culture or the language in just 8 minutes, but I hope you’ve become more aware of how much we neglect Deaf culture and as a community need to embrace it for the true beauty that it holds. As my speech is coming to an end, I’d like to leave you with a question. Is sign language really a hidden language, when it’s right in front of our faces? The 30 thousand deaf people in Australia have a voice, and if we don’t listen, they can’t be heard.