The Auslan interpreter is not just the side show

Do you ever find yourself, while watching COVID press briefings, focusing in on the Auslan interpreter, and wondering how they do it? Do you ponder how much information they are really conveying?

Well, the answer is, a lot.

People often assume that Auslan can’t portray richness and depth of meaning due to having fewer vocabulary items than spoken English.

It’s true that there are over 200,000 words in the English dictionary, compared to around 15,000 signs in the Auslan dictionary.

However one Auslan sign can carry multiple meanings, based on the manner in which it is signed. The force, speed and size of movement of the sign – as well as facial expressions – all play a role in conveying meaning.

Many also believe that sign language is a universal language. However, in the same way that countries have their own spoken language, each country’s sign language is unique.

Australian Sign Language, or Auslan, grew out of British sign language, and became recognised as a community language in 1991.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the vital role that Auslan plays in our community.

While all Australians have been affected by the pandemic, it has thrown up many extra challenges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The mandatory wearing of masks in some states has had a profound impact.

Not only do masks affect the clarity of sound that some hard of hearing or Deaf people need to communicate, but Auslan relies heavily on facial expression and mouth patterns, which can change meaning and influence signs.

And then there’s the use of Auslan interpreters. When you’re conveying important public health information, inclusivity is vital.

Imagine how you’d feel if the Premier suddenly started speaking in a language you didn’t understand.

The provision of an Auslan interpreter must be consistent across all press conferences – including those of the Prime Minister.

For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities, this is a basic human right.

The recent World Sign Language Day celebrates our communities’ rich languages, our right to accessible information, and our leaders, past and present, who advocate for our rights.

So next time you’re watching a press conference, focus on the Auslan interpreter – because they are using our country’s unique sign language to convey rich and complex meaning.

Most importantly they are fulfilling a basic human right.

Watch this video and have a go at some of 2021's most useful Auslan signs with Ramunas McRae.

This article first appeared in Australian Community Media.