Home > Deaf History > Timeline of New Zealand Sign Language

Timeline of New Zealand Sign Language

May 7, 2009


340 BC Socrates is reported to have said to his students, “If we could not speak, we would talk with our hands, head and other parts of the body, like deaf people”.

Early AD Early Christian church in the UK allows sign language to be used in weddings.

c. 700 The Venerable Bede, an English cleric, wrote about curing the deaf and making them speak. There were also examples of hand alphabets and counting systems.

C 5th-15th Various works of medieval writers and artists portrayed deaf people and gestural communication in their works.

C 13th-14th Artists had incorporated one-handed fingerspelling into portraits of historical figures, e.g. portraits of Chaucer.

1500-1700 Deaf people working in the Turkish Ottoman court used sign language that was regularly used by hearing people including the Sultans to express their ideas at whatever complexity.

1550s King Philip II of Spain had a deaf court painter, named Juan Fernandez Lavarrete , who was known as ‘El Mudo’. He could sign, read and write. Also he used an interpreter.

1660s-1800s Sign language was evolved in European nations, especially in the schools for the deaf. Some schools used a “combined method” of speech and signs/fingerspelling.

There were many Deaf schools in Europe, America and Australia that used sign language, and had Deaf teachers and principals.

1868-1879 Miss Dorcas Mitchell, a teacher of the deaf who taught in London, was employed to teach the children of Rev. R. R. Bradley who had nine children. Eight of the nine were deaf. By 1878 she had 42 pupils and no government assistance

Miss Dorcas worked hard lobbying the government to set up a school for deaf children in New Zealand. When a deaf school was eventually approved she applied for the job as director. She was, however, turned down in favour of Gerrit van Asch and soon after this, she left for Australia and nothing is known about her after this time.

1880 Attitudes towards sign language were negative – many thought it was an inferior form of communication and that all intelligent Deaf children would master the oral system.

The Sumner School for the Deaf near Christchurch, opens. Gerrit van Asch a German expert in oral education, is chosen as director and he used the oralist method. Interestingly, some deaf children brought home signs, and then school signs develop that progress into NZSL in the hostels and playground.

At the 2nd International Congress of Educators of the Deaf in Milan, Italy, attended by hearing teachers from all over the world, a most critical decision for deaf education was made. Almost the entire congress was devoted to oral methods of teaching – 9 people voted in favour of oralism and against signs, and three voted in favour of signs.

From that point, many Deaf teachers disappeared from the classrooms and sign language was banned in many schools for the deaf.

1890 The 4th International Congress on the Education and Welfare of the Deaf was held in Paris, which wase attended by 200+ Deaf people and at least 200 hearing people. The hearing organisers refused to allow Deaf delegates to join their congress. Both groups met separately after the joint opening ceremony. A request from the Deaf for a joint final meeting was also denied. The result ended was that a resolution in support of the combined system received only 7 votes in the hearing section despite unanimous support by the Deaf section.

1880s-1920s Some Deaf children from NZ were sent to signing schools in Melbourne and later returned to NZ and passed the signs on to other Deaf children in NZ. The signs used in Melbourne were British Sign Language (BSL) that later became Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN).

In Deaf schools where oralism was used, Deaf staff were employed as cleaners, cooks and gardeners, etc. They passed signs on to the Deaf children who learnt from them. Thus signs were passed from one generation to another.

1942 Titirangi School for Deaf opens. The children who boarded at Titirangi developed different signs to those at Sumner School. This was the beginning of regional variations in NZ Sign Language.

1944 St Dominic’s School for the Deaf opens, signing was strictly forbidden but it was known that some Deaf nuns who worked in the school as domestic helpers passed on some Irish signs. The signs used at St Dominic’s are also different from other schools for Deaf in NZ.

1960s The biggest milestone for sign language was William Stokoe, a hearing professor at Galluadet College (now Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the Deaf) who did linguistic research on American Sign Language (ASL), was the first academic hearing person to say that sign language is a human language.

1970s The Total Communication (Signed English) philosophy starts in the USA, when teachers found that Deaf children of Deaf parents learnt faster that those who used the oral method.

Total Communication (TC) is an approach to deaf education that aims to make use of a number of modes of communication such as signs, oral, auditory, written and visual aids.

Total Communication (TC) method was adopted quickly in UK and Australia.

Jim Moody, an American psychologist in NZ, challenges the oral education system and supports parents to start using TC in Deaf Education in NZ.

A committee was set up by New Zealand and Australian Teachers of the Deaf and Deaf representatives to develop Australasian Signed English system, based on Australian (Victorian School for Deaf) signs.

1972 Peter Ballingall, a teacher of the Deaf at Kelston, researched the signs used by Deaf children, which is now known as NZ Sign Language. He found 600 signs and said that it is a natural language. Unfortunately, many of the teachers of the Deaf did not accept his research because they expressed a negative attitude towards natural sign language used by the Deaf.

1979 Total Communication (TC) and Australasian Signed English were officially used for teaching Deaf children in NZ especially for those who are failing through oral methods.

1980s TC classes were taught in schools and Hearing Associations where Deaf and hearing people attended to learn the Australasian Signed English signs. There was some confusion about ‘new signs’ (TC) and ‘old signs’ (NZSL) within the Deaf Community.

TC was supposed to be a middle ground in age-old disputes between oralism and natural sign language. But it failed dismally because it was a signed system constructed by hearing people with signs for each word in the English language. It did not follow the natural grammar rules of NZSL

Marianne Collins-Ahlgren of Victoria University of Wellington begins research on NZSL to prove that it is a true language of the Deaf people in NZ.

Bilingual education starts overseas in Sweden and USA. Research on bilingual education has shown that Deaf children acquire language and learning better through using natural sign language.

Bilingual-bicultural or BiBi educational programs focus on making the classroom bilingual via a means of natural native sign language which is used to support learning a written spoken language.

1983: NZ Association of the Deaf (NZAD) was persuaded by the President at the time (who happened to be hearing) to accept Signed English as the official sign language – in the belief that anything else would prevent Deaf children from having any kind of access to manual communication.

1985 First Sign Language Interpreters course sets up in Auckland with the support of Deaf Association, Sir Roy McKenzie and what was then the Social Welfare Dept. NZSL is taught on this course where many Deaf people were involved. Importantly, it is the beginning of Deaf awareness and pride in using NZSL.

1986 Dan Levitt’s book on Introduction to New Zealand Sign Language is published. This led to many Deaf people to name language used as “NZSL” instead of “old sign”.

1988: NZAD puts this right – NZSL is the language of Deaf

1989 Marianne Collins-Ahlgren’s thesis on NZSL is completed and her work showed the full details of the linguistics of NZSL.

World Games for the Deaf were held in Christchurch where many Deaf people from around the world were communicating in sign languages that led the Deaf Community in NZ to open up and show their pride in using NZSL.

1990s More NZSL classes are being taught by Deaf people into their communities all over the country.

The project on developing a dictionary of NZSL began at Victoria University of Wellington.

1992 Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting course starts at AIT (now Auckland University of Technology). It is taught by a team of Deaf and hearing lecturers. This leads to more interest from the public in learning NZSL for a career.

1993 NZ Sign Language Tutors Association is established.

1995 Bilingual and bicultural (NZSL and English) class starts at Kelston Deaf Education Centre with a Deaf teacher and a Deaf Language Assistant that paved the way for Bi-Bi philosophy within the school. This was an historical moment – after more than 100 years NZSL is now recognised in a school for the Deaf in NZ.

Deaf Festival at Kelston Deaf Education Centre celebrates NZ Sign Language and Deaf culture.

1997 Bilingual classes start at Van Asch Deaf Education Centre. Deaf Studies curriculum was being developed there.

Victoria University of Wellington has set up a course for Deaf NZSL teachers, in which graduates can get a Certificate in Deaf Studies: Teaching NZSL. This is the first university course that recognises NZSL.

The Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language is published, containing 4000 signs and this leads to significant increase in public awareness of NZSL.

Late 1990s NZSL Storytelling competitions, debates, Deaf Culture panels and Deaf drama are developed.

2004 NZSL Bill goes to parliament and passes the first reading.

2006 On April 6 the Third Reading of the NZSL BIll was passed 119-2 in Parliament. This was a most historical moment for the Deaf Community. After being oppressed in education and wider society for over a hundred years, and competing with other inferior systems such as oralism and Signed English (TC), NZSL is now finally recognised as a part of NZ’s Culture.


Timeline compiled with the assistance of Janine Mac Pherson

Moving Hands: Celebrating Years of Deaf Education, Van Asch Deaf Education Centre (2005)

Breda Carty (2005), Renwick College, Sydney. Deaf History Workshop 18 – 22 April 2005.

Miles, M. (2000). Signing in the Seraglio: mutes, dwarfs, and jestures at the Ottoman Court 1500-1700. Disability & Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 115-134.

(from http://www.nzsign.co.nz/Timeline.aspx )

Categories: Deaf History
  1. May 8, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Boys, this is very interesting and elaborate. I knew most of it, but you always learn something new. And the anecdotes are good for storytelling and teaching. You don’t mind I translate some in Dutch? Keep up te very good work. Martin Terryn

  2. May 8, 2009 at 8:37 am

    You can translate some in Dutch. 🙂

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