Not my cup of teaKellye Bensley is one of 20,235 New Zealanders who sign and Deaf Aoteoroa hopes that New Zealand Sign Language Week will boost numbers even more. Each year the organisation urges New Zealanders to take a fresh look at the country's third official language.

Photo: Kellye Bensley signing "Not my cup of tea"

Crash course in sighing

On the streets of Christchurch, some locals were happy to be taught a few signs, courtesy of a persuasive reporter (Katy Gosset) and the Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language.  

And yet despite efforts by Deaf Aotearoa, figures from last year's Census show that the number of sign language users has fallen, down from more than 24,000 recorded during the 2006 Census.

Last year the Human Rights Commission launched a report entitled "A New Era in the Right to Sign". It identified barriers deaf people face in accessing healthcare and education services

Kellye Bensley says some of the issues are now being addressed and an interpreter booking system is available for health related appointments. She says Government agencies such as Social Development, Education, Health and the Accident Compensation Corporation are also working together on a video relay system.

"It means that if an interpreter isn't available, you can put a screen in front of you like an Ipad and a deaf person will sign to that screen ... basically they're signing to ACC or whoever they've got the appointment with and it's a three-way conversation but it's through a video relay interpreting service."

She says there are also moves to establish sign language as an NCEA subject.

Meanwhile out in the community, there are others helping to swell the ranks of sign language users. 

Fiona Yip is an audiologist and has been taking an evening class in sign language for about two years. She says it's helped her bond with clients, many of whom have Down Syndrome.

"It's quite good being able to communicate with them with sign because they often get quite frustrated when they can't express themsevles or when people don't understand them. But if you know a little bit of sign, there's a way to communicate."

As for her favourite sign?

"Wassup? Just because it's like quite a casual way of asking people how they're going. How do I describe it? It's kind of like waving your index finger, doing the what? and then just moving your palm, your right palm up in the air."

Kay Weeks teaches primary school students and has been passing New Zealand Sign Language on to them as she learns it herself.

"They're doing really well. They love it. They know how to sign their names, they're learning colours, simple commands, greetings. We've been learning our mihi in Maori so they have been able to sign along with that so all their family names and relatives, so it's been really good for them. It's helping me cement it into my learning too so it's a win win situation."

Her friend and fellow softball player, Mark Parrett, is also taking the course. The pair use sign language on the softball pitch "as a sneaky code" to confuse the batter.

He says he joined the course both to learn another language and also to help others.

"I have been in an occasion when someone was trying to sign to someone in a shop and I didn't know what they were saying and of course the shop keeper didn't know what they were saying and that person looked rather frustrated. I thought well maybe, if that ever happens again, I might be able to help someone communicate with a hearing person."

New Zealand Sign Language Week runs from May 12 – 18.

To upload your favourite sign and find out about sign language events visit the New Zealand Sign Language Week website.

One in Five for 11 May 2014 - Transcript

Katy Gosset: Hello, I’m Katy Gosset and welcome to One In Five. And in this programme, do you have a favourite word?

Woman: Yes.

Katy Gosset: Yes? ‘Yes’ is your favourite word?

Woman: Well, I used it a lot, so…

Katy Gosset: You’re a yes woman?      

Woman: Well, most of the time.

Katy Gosset: What would be your favourite word?

Man 1: Favourite word? I’m going to think about that. Favourite word…

Woman: Contentment.

Katy Gosset: Contentment? That’s a good one.

Man 1: I don’t know. I don’t have a favourite  word.

Katy Gosset: So how about a favourite sign, then?

Woman: I know the alphabet with my hands and that’s about it. So A, B, C, D and so on. That’s all I know – the very simple stuff.

Woman: I enjoy doing all of them, I suppose. I suppose red. The little circle on the chin is the colour red and it’s my favourite colour, so… I think Mark likes the ‘restaurant’ one.

Katy Gosset: Describe that for us, Mark.

Mark Parrett: Restaurant, basically you’ve got your two fingers, like you’d give the normal fingers to anybody.

Katy Gosset: (Laughs) As you do.

Mark Parrett: Instead of using one hand, you use two hands and it’s like chopsticks or a spoon effect and you’re just shoveling food in your mouth, which means ‘restaurant’. So I like that one quite a bit. Sometimes it’s a naughty sign, sometimes it’s that I’m just at a restaurant.

Katy Gosset: (Laughs) OK.      

Woman: My favourite sign would be ‘Wassup?’ just because it’s quite a casual way of asking people how they’re doing. How do I describe it? It’s like waving your index finger doing the ‘what’, and just moving your right palm in the air like that, yeah, with frowning in your face. So wassup?

Katy Gosset: I didn’t know that one. So wassup?

Katy Gosset (addressing  a different interviewee): Just for interest’s sake, I’m going to take your favourite word. We’re going to look it up in the New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary online and I’m going to teach you the sign for ‘contentment’. OK? Alright. So we type it in here. It looks like… you’re kind of clapping. Almost clapping your hands upwards. Now, do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take a picture of you.

Woman: Oh, no.

Katy Gosset: Oh, yes. You can do it. I’ll get a picture of you for our website. Lovely.

Woman: I didn’t know this was going to happen as I was coming out to the supermarket. (Laughs)

Katy Gosset: Oh, well. There you go. You’ve learnt something new.

Now, in case you’re wondering, this is not an exercise in stopping people from doing their shopping. New Zealand Sign Language Week begins tomorrow and Deaf Aotearoa is running a campaign encouraging people to film their favourite sign and upload it to their website. Every May the organisation urges New Zealanders to take a fresh look at our third official language. And yet, in recent times, the numbers of those using it have dropped. I began learning sign language last year, and in September I made a programme about it and gave the official number of users as just over 24,000 people. Now, last year’s census shows that number has fallen to about 20,200 people. So what’s going on? Well, Kellye Bensley is the Community Engagement Manager for Deaf Aotearoa in Christchurch. Using an interpreter, she offers one possible reason.

Kellye Bensley: We think it’s because previously people thought ‘I know some signs’. And it might just be some very basic signs. They might say ‘I know how to use sign language.  When the earthquake happened they saw fluent sign on TV possibly for the first time and they realised that perhaps I don’t even sign that much now. So in the past, sign language wasn’t really encouraged in families. When your child was born deaf, signing wasn’t really encouraged.

Katy Gosset: But last year the Human Rights Commission launched a report, called a new era in the right to sign. It followed an enquiry into the barriers deaf people face when they use sign language and in particular their ability to access education and health care. Kellye Bensley said some of those issues are now being addressed.

Kellye Bensley: Some of those gaps or barriers are probably within health, possibly hospitals would not be aware that there’s a service that they can provide, that a person can go to a doctor. And a doctor may not realise they can contact the interpretive booking agency called iSign to book an interpreter to provide that service. A deaf person can have access to those health services. Similarly with education - there’s huge gaps in education, as well, and we’re working on that at the moment. There are four government agencies – Social Development, Education, Health and ACC are working together, rolling out the VRI relay service. And it means that if an interpreter isn’t available we can put a screen in front of them, like an iPad, and a deaf person will sign to that screen. Basically, they’re signing to ACC or whoever they’ve got the appointment with. It’s a three-way conversation, like we are doing now, and it’s through a video relay interpreting service.

Katy Gosset: Do you expect that more of that will happen as a result of the Human Rights Commission’s report and things like Sign Language Week?

Kellye Bensley: Absolutely, I do. I think because the Ministry of Education are committed to encouraging families to learn sign language now and they’re working on a project focusing on sign language for families, for early diagnosed children, and to provide that family with a sign language service. And that’s starting in Wellington soon. We will have ebooks released very soon. That’s a government initiative, as well. So Deaf Aoteaora are very happy with the progress that’s been happening of late with government and their relationship and their connection with us.

Katy Gosset: So while the number of people who use sign language may have dropped, we know that there are still at least 20,000 of them out there. So who are they? Well, let’s head out into the community to find out. First up, the visit to the local shopping mall. In Christchurch, with much of the city still being rebuilt, the suburban malls are social hubs for many, and deaf people are no different. Here I join Linda Allen, my sign language teacher, and her son Ryan. Linda is deaf, while Ryan is hearing, but has signed all his life and acts as her interpreter tonight. It’s a Thursday evening, the food court is thronged with people, and the noise is intense - almost too much so for recording purposes. So for me it’s a kind of introduction to the world of partial hearing.

Here we are at the shopping mall. How easy is it to achieve what you want to achieve, buy things, interact with people?

Ryan Burcher speaks for Linda: Texting is quite easy, like a makeshift notepad. Just like any hearing person, you pick what you want, take it to the counter, pay for it. Generally there isn’t that much communication, even with hearing people, when you go to the counter. Buying a coffee, she points to what she wants and all that. Just being forward, really.

Katy Gosset: So I guess everybody has a different personality. You, Linda:, as I know from your classes, are quite cheeky.

Ryan Burcher speaks for Linda: Yeah, of course. Not here, though. Not here.

Katy Gosset: (Laughs) But I suppose it’s a situation that necessitates busting out of certain shyness for some people, having to be quite forward, as you say.

Ryan speaks for Linda: Yeah, she started breaking through that barrier when her children started going to school. Interacting with teachers, she had to talk to them. Other kids’ parents… If I wanted to go to my mate’s place she’d have to communicate with the parents. She started doing handwritten notes to our teachers, then when they started to understand Linda:, the way she speaks, they threw away the bit of paper and could understand a bit more. And, yeah, just started developing from that. It built her confidence up, as well.

Katy Gosset: So what do you see in your classes, for example, in terms of the people who come and the reasoning for coming.

Ryan speaks for Linda: They’re all quite motivated. They want to carry on to level 2. The reason for them coming was to teach deaf children in preschools. I’m assuming most of them are early childhood teachers. She met up with another tutor and her class, mainly the students are parents of the children.

Katy Gosset: And then there’s Ryan’s own position. He his himself the parent of a deaf child. His partner is also deaf, as are both his parents, making him what’s referred to here in new Zealand as a CODA, or a child of deaf adult. He says growing up as the only hearing person in a deaf family brought its own challenges.

Ryan Burcher: I didn’t speak until the age of five. The preschool thought I had speech problems because I hadn’t spoke. I talked at home in sign language. Mum didn’t realise that I wasn’t speaking at school until the teachers told her ‘Your son doesn’t talk.’ We’re getting him ready for school in the next six months. He doesn’t talk. There’s something wrong with your son. She was like ‘No, he communicates with me fine. There’s nothing wrong with my son.’ They go, ‘He doesn’t talk.’ She goes ‘What do you mean?’ They said ‘He doesn’t respond.’ So they thought I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t trained myself, because I hadn’t had the need to speak at home. So I thought it was normal. It’s hard to explain how I grew up, yeah. I went only three times a week to preschool. Once they found that problem, how I wasn’t responding, she requested the preschool to take me on five days a week with speech therapy every day for the next six months. I wasn’t held back or anything like that.

Katy Gosset: So now you have a child of your own, who is deaf. Do you approach anything differently because of your experience growing up?

Ryan Burcher: I try to expose her a lot more. So in the mall I’m signing very visually so my child can see and my partner can see. I try and be very visual, expose her and show my daughter that nothing is wrong.

Katy Gosset:  And Ryan says coming here with his daughter also calls for hypervigilance. He says when children take off our instinct is to call out, to tell them to come back or listen. But he says his daughter won’t hear him, so when      she runs, he runs, too.

Ryan Burcher: So there’ll be a strange guy running through the mall and picking up a child. I do get looked at weird sometimes. Maybe they just think it’s not my child or I’m stealing a child. But then I start signing to her, saying ‘You can’t go that way. Calm down, talk’ and they realize this child is deaf. That’s the only thing.

Katy Gosset: And so from the hubbub of the mall, we head now to the relative calm of my sign language class. Held at a high school after hours, this is a quiet gathering, but one that’s frequently punctuated by laughter. Fiona Yip is in the class ahead of me and has undertaken sign for work purposes.

Fiona Yip: I was doing sign language up in Whangarei. I was working as an audiologist at the hospital and working with children and thought it was a good idea to learn some sign so I can communicate with some of them. I’m pretty slow. I’ve been to a couple of deaf club meetings when I was in Whangarei and it’s quite tricky when you’re talking with deaf people, but I can get by OK. They slow down for me.

Katy Gosset: And when you work with your clients as an audiologist, what sort of reception have you had from them, because you’ve been able to communicate with them in that way?

Fiona Yip: Really good, actually, especially bonding with parents and children. I work at the university now and there are mainly children with Down’s syndrome and some of them are actually learning NZ baby sign, which I’ve never heard of, but it’s quite good being able to communicate with them with sign, because they often get frustrated when they can’t express themselves or people don’t understand them. But if you know a little bit of sign, they often can cooperate a bit better.

Katy Gosset: Meanwhile, I’ve been learning sign alongside Kay Weeks and Mark Perrot for the last two terms.

Kay Weeks: I’m a teacher and I thought it would be really good to pass that on to children. It is the third official New Zealand language. So as well as teaching Maori, I’ve been teaching sign language alongside it to 5 year olds through to 11 year olds.

Katy Gosset: And what’s been the uptake? How are they doing?

Kay Weeks: They’re doing really well. They love it. They know how to sign their names, they’re learning colours, simple commands, greetings. We’ve been learning our mihi in Maori, so they have been able to sign along with that. So all their family names and relatives. It’s been really good for them.

Katy Gosset: So you’re effectively teaching them as fast as you learn it yourself?

Kay Weeks: Yes, I am. It’s helping cement it in to my learning, as well, so it’s a win-win situation.

Katy Gosset: So other than teaching, do you have an opportunity to sign outside in a social setting?

Kay Weeks: Only with my friends that are learning it alongside me when we play softball together. I pitch and Mark catches, so quite often we’ll make funny little comments to each other and it confuses the batter, which is quite good. (Laughs) To our advantage, maybe.

Katy Gosset: So a sneaky sort of code?

Kay Weeks: A sneaky sort of code, yeah.

Katy Gosset: Mark, do you understand?

Mark Parrett: Most of the time. Sometimes I’ve got a blank look on my face, but, yeah, we’re getting the hang of it.       

Katy Gosset: Fair enough. So have you been surprised by any particular concept or sign or way certain things are done in sign language?

Kay Weeks: I think most of it makes sense. Once you see the sign you go ‘Oh, that makes sense that it should be that.’ So I quite like the shortcut signs as opposed to having to spell everything out. I have to really concentrate, and I realise how my children at school feel. So, yeah, I do like the shortcut signs.

Katy Gosset: I’m aware that the usage of sign language in New Zealand has dropped. Just in the last census it’s been revealed that numbers have gone down a little bit. What do you think of that, and about the usage generally of sign language?

Kay Weeks: I think it’s most probably a shame that it’s happened. Just because it’s gone down doesn’t mean to say there’s any less deaf people out there or people that need to sign to be able to communicate, so I think that’s a shame. I would imagine in Christchurch it was a big boost when our earthquakes first started and everybody thought the guy that was signing was quite dishy, so I think it was quite a phase then to get everybody to sign, people were quite keen to sign because the dishy guy was signing.

Katy Gosset: Hot Jeremy you’re referring to?

Kay Weeks: Hot Jeremy, I’m referring to, yeah. But that wasn’t why I wanted to learn to sign, honest.

Katy Gosset: (Laughs) Oh, it’s all coming out now.

Mark Parrett: You wanted to meet him.

Kay Weeks: No.

Katy Gosset: So what’s brought you along here to the sign language classes?

Mark Parrett: My wife and I had seen… We’d been at things like the park and seen sign language people doing signing and thought ‘I wonder what they’re saying.’ It really made us curious, you know? So we thought maybe one day we may need to use it. There had been one occasion when someone was trying to sign to someone in a shop and I didn’t know what they were saying and the shopkeeper didn’t know what they were saying. And that person looked rather frustrated. I thought if it ever happens again I might be able to help someone communicate with a hearing person, make their life a little bit easier. Maybe later on in life it may come in handy as a job or something like that. I haven’t actually done it for any specific purpose, just to learn another language, really. I’ve never been really good at Chinese or Japanese or Maori, so I thought maybe this one I can do. I seem to be picking it up quite well.

Katy Gosset: And you’ve come with your wife, lois. Do you find that you are practising at home together?

Mark Parrett: At the start we were practising, we were doing our homework. But as of late we’ve got a bit busy. If we go to McDonald’s or some sort of restaurant and we’re a distance away from each other, we’ll quite often sign instead of having to call out or make yourself look a bit silly, we’d just sign to each other and that way I know if she wants more of this or if she wants that. So it has come in quite handy on the odd occasion. (Laughs) But we try to use it as much as we can. Our children at home, they’ve learnt a little bit of it, but they just like all the bad words. That’s basically what they like to learn. (Laughs)

Katy Gosset: What have you learnt in the way of bad language?

Mark Parrett: I’ve learnt a couple of bad language ones. I won’t say them on the radio. But they come in quite handy when you get drivers who do wrong manouevres when I’m driving, ‘cause I’m a truck driver by trade. So when I’m on the road all the time people do silly things and I can sign-language to them. But hopefully they don’t know what I mean. (Laughs) I’ve offended them, but they haven’t seen my lips move.

Katy Gosset: Among those at this gathering is Anna Tyler. She is deaf and has come to assist with a conversation class. Speaking through an interpreter, she says this growing interest in sign language has been a long time coming.

Anna Tyler: It’s just the culture. We all want sign language to be out there. It’s been the national language of new Zealand from 1996 and it’s only now that it’s more aware and people are learning more. So it’s good. It’s helping the deaf community with communication and just showing how beautiful sign language actually is.

Katy Gosset: Another key place where sign language is employed is deaf club. The Christchurch building was pulled down after the earthquakes and Anna says the local deaf community is eagerly awaiting its return.

Anna Tyler: They’re still trying to find somewhere to build the new deaf club. At the moment it’s in two – it’s in Woolston Workingmens Club or in Spreydon. It’s between the two, really, yeah. But it’s too hard with different locations for people to know where to go or some people don’t want to travel all the way into Spreydon because the deaf club was in the middle, so everyone could go and meet in the middle, whereas it’s either on one side of town or the other side of town. We’re looking forward to the deaf club finally being built, a new home for the deaf community in Christchurch.

Katy Gosset: In the meantime, Kellye Bensley of Deaf Aotearoa says there are other initiatives in the pipeline that should swell the ranks of sign language users.

Kellye Bensley: There’s an initiative that NCEA started up. And that’s a sign language subject that’s going to be a qualification within NCEAA now. It’s still in draft, and hopefully it will start next year. And that’ll start with high school students starting to learn to sign as an alternative language. And we hope that it will grow. You’re seeing more and more people learning sign language nowadays. Front-line staff. For example, I went into a power company recently and out came a person who started signing to me. I was absolutely surprised and it was just a lovely experience that the person could sign. They had been to a sign language class. And she was pretty good. So people are learning to communicate with deaf people. They’re going to sign language classes… It’s very useful. My best friend, she’s hearing and she’s just recently had a baby, and she’s telling me ‘I want to learn sign language ‘cause I want my baby to learn signing’. I grew up oral, so she signs a little bit and I sign to her just a little bit. And she wants to have a lot more. She’s got really confident in trying to find a different place for her baby to learn signing, as well.

Katy Gosset: Yeah. It’s just this thing of at the moment, it seems to me, most hearing people who sign are people who learn either for their work or because they have someone in their personal life who’s deaf. And I’m interested in what needs to happen to push sign language beyond that, to make it a language that’s just fun and interesting to learn.

Kellye Bensley: I think, really, you can sign through the window, which is really enjoyable, or to someone who’s far, far away that you wouldn’t be able to yell to, and you wouldn’t know what they’re talking about if they’re signing at a distance. And if you want a private conversation that you don’t want other people to understand what you’re saying you can do little wee nuances within sign language. You can have secret sign language going on, as well. So, yeah.

Katy Gosset: So it would appeal to children, that spying nature?

Kellye Bensley: Definitely. Yeah, absolutely. Secret language stuff, yep.

Katy Gosset: For those who’d like to learn this ‘secret language’, Kelly says there are plenty of activities happening around the country as part of sign language week.

Kellye Bensley: Come and have a look and try sign language week. You can learn one sign a day. That’s the challenge. You can video yourself signing those things. Come on, we want to see what your favourite signs are out there. Come on.

Katy Gosset: What’s your favourite sign?

Kellye Bensley: I can’t describe it, but when you say ‘It’s not my cup of tea’. And it’s like you’re holding a cup of tea and you kind of flick it over your shoulder. ‘It’s not my cup of tea.’

Katy Gosset: (Laughs) And that brings me back to my street search - canvassing locals on their thoughts about sign language.

Man: I know this means ‘goodbye’ in sign language. A couple of my friends from school when I was younger used to know a little bit, so that’s the only thing… They showed me a couple of things, but I can’t remember.

Katy Gosset: Do you know New Zealand sign language at all?

Woman: Yeah,  I do. A little bit. The very simple stuff. It was something that we learned at primary, really. It was quite good, ‘cause then we could interact with all the other kids without them feeling different.

Katy Gosset: So you had deaf children with you?

Woman: Yeah, we did. I lived up in the North Island. We did have a couple from what I remember. And we treated them like normal people. They were normal people. They’d come and hang out with us and we’d do our sign language - the simple stuff of course, that’s all I knew back then. But yeah.

Katy Gosset: And do you think if you needed to, now all of a sudden, or when you get hassled by someone from Radio New Zealand, you might be up to it?

Woman: It’s been a long time since I’ve done it, so I don’t have the guts to do it. But yeah. If there was a situation where I had to interact with somebody I could try my best, but I don’t really… I’m not very confident. (Laughs)

Katy Gosset: I’m going to put you on the spot now and ask you to remember one of your signs.

Woman: What one do you want me to do?

Katy Gosset: Whichever one you think you’d like.

Woman: Probably D.

Katy Gosset: Do you know any New Zealand Sign Language?

Another woman: No. No, I don’t.

Katy Gosset: Have you ever thought about learning it?

Woman: Yeah, I could. ‘Cause I’m retired now and it’s something I could do. Maybe get into some voluntary work and help there. And our daughter, she knows sign language, she’s a school teacher. So she could help prompt me along and just help me, ‘cause I’m a bit slow picking things up. So I will look into it and I’ll certainly pass the word round to anyone I’m talking to that I’ve talked to you and it could be helpful.

Katy Gosset: Well, that’s our programme. But if you go to our webpage you’ll see some pics of our new converts there, practicing their favourite signs. And you’ve like to learn a few signs and film yourself, check out:

You can get in touch with us at oneinfive@ and we’ll join you again at the same time next week.