The first non-Polynesian immigrants to New Zealand were from Britain, and those who were deaf consequently brought British Sign Language (BSL) with them. The first known teacher of BSL in New Zealand was Dorcas Mitchell, who started to teach in 1868. When the first school for deaf children opened at Sumner, a few kilometers south-east from Christchurch in 1878, she unsuccessfully applied for the position of Principal, which went to Gerrit Van Asch, a defender of oral education for deaf, in accordance with the Milan Congress of 1880. Consequently, Van Asch’s teaching was only oral and sign language was forbidden, so pupils had to speak English.
This unfortunate decision was established as the school’s rule until 1979. But pupils secretly used sign language in school and after leaving it, developing NZSL out of British Sign Language largely without adult intervention for over 100 years. The main haven for NZSL was the Deaf Clubs in the main centres.
In 1979, "Total Communication" (a "use anything that works" philosophy) was adopted at the Sumner School, but the signing it used was "Australasian Sign Language" an artificial signed form of English. As a result, younger signers use a number of Australasian signs in their NZSL, to such an extent that some call traditional NZSL "Old Sign". In 1985, Marianne Ahlgren proved in her PhD thesis at Victoria University, Wellington, that NZSL is a fully-fledged language with a large vocabulary and consistent grammar of space.
In 1992, the NZSL Teachers Association (NZSLTA) was set up, and over the next few years, adult education classes in NZSL started, as well as the first interpreter training program at Auckland University of Technology, directed and taught by David and Rachel McKee.
This was the first time a professional training programme with a qualification was offered in New Zealand. Many of those who have gone on to work as professional NZSL interpreters began their journey in NZSL community classes taught by members of the NZSLTA.
In 1994, thanks to the intensive interpreters training and work, NZSL was finally adopted for teaching.
In 1997 was established the first Certificate of Deaf Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, launched by David and Rachel McKee, with instruction actually in NZSL, designed to teach deaf people how to teach NZSL to the wider public.
An important step toward the recognition of NZSL was the publication in 1998 of a comprehensive NZSL dictionary by the Victoria University of Wellington and the Deaf Association of NZ. It contains some 4000 signs (which correspond to many more meanings than the same number of English words, because of the way signs can be modulated in space and time), sorted by handshape, not English meaning, and coded in the Hamburg Notational System, HamNoSys, as well as pictorially. On the linguistic side, it was established – in particular thanks to David McKee researches – that NZSL has its roots in BSL and AUSLAN, as it has the same manual alphabet than these two sign languages. But it also has more lip-patterns in conjunction with head and facial movements to cue signs than BSL. This detail reflects New Zealand’s history of oral education for deaf people. NZSL, BSL and AUSLAN are so much related that they are now considered as three dialects of a same original language : the British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL).
Indeed, between Auslan, BSL and NZSL, 82% of signs are identical. When considering identical as well as similar or related signs there are 98% cognate signs between the languages. By comparison, ASL (American Sign Language) and BANZSL have only 31% signs identical, or 44% cognate. However, be aware that the term BANZSLis not meant to replace the terms BSL, Auslan and NZSL. While each dialect retains its individuality, they may be referred to collectively as BANZSL.
Finally, the NZSL was recognized as an official language of New Zealand on 6th April 2006, joining Maori and English.
Alongside this path, you can notice that the use of NZSL as a valid medium of education was not accepted by government, teachers for deaf and many parents at the beginning. But now, NZSL has become with English part of the bilingual / bicultural approach used in public schools for the deaf since 1994 – e.g. Kelston Deaf Education Centre in the North island, and Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in the South island.
The Victoria University of Wellington has courses in New Zealand Sign Language, and teaches the Certificate of Deaf Studies, whereas Auckland University of Technology still teaches the diploma course for NZSL interpreting
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