A social enterprise hoping to normalise New Zealand Sign Language is running its first course in Morrinsville. Hosted by Merge NZ, the course, taking place from November 5, has been designed for people with no prior knowledge of the language.
Director Jaime Brown, a former Te Aroha native, is hopeful participants will walk away with the ability to string a couple of new sentences together. "There are 440,000 deaf or hard of hearing people in New Zealand and that's quite a large proportion.
"Most people know how to say kia ora or kai or aroha, so it'd be great if we had that same affect with NZSL . If people could sign the basics, that would make a huge difference to deaf peoples access to society." Merge was established in Auckland two years ago and launched in the Waikato in 2018, where they have since organised courses in Hamilton. The Morrinsville course will be run by Te Aroha resident Hayley Jackson, a deaf woman training to become a qualified NZSL teacher. It will be a completely "voices off" course, Brown said. "There's a huge difference between NZSL and English.
They have different grammatical structures so if you were to use your voice in the class, you'd kind of be using two really separate languages at the same time. So if you just work with the one language, you'd learn it a lot faster. "Voices are turned off and everything is completely in sign language from the very first lesson." Participants will be able to walk away knowing basic conversational sign language such as numbers, how to introduce themselves, how to introduce others, and discuss what they have learned.
Brown said that although more people have become aware of NZSL , there was still an unfamiliarity of the history of sign language in New Zealand. "It really has a similar pathway to te reo; it was banned in New Zealand for over 100 years in the education system and that still has a roll-on effect to today. "There's also not much awareness that sign language is actually a language," she said. "It has a different grammatical structure to English and it's also not universal. There's over 230 sign languages around the world. "NZSL is really unique to New Zealand because it incorporates our culture and Māori signs as well."