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Brief History

Historically most Western countries banned sign languages from education systems for almost a century, from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, due to the prevailing to oralism philosophy (Baynton, 1996). This meant that speech alone was promoted to 'normalise' Deaf people instead of communicating in sign language.


A dominating medical view on deafness assumes it is a health-related problem to be cured. This meant signing was excluded because it was considered it would prevent them learning spoken languages (Tapio & Takkinen, 2012, p.13).


In New Zealand, the education system for the Deaf followed the oralism teaching methodology from the 1880s until the early 1990’s. Today, there are still ongoing debate whether to use NZSL or spoken English in teaching environment.

Deaf children of Deaf parents attended schools for the Deaf where they used early sign language developed in their home environment, and their sign language was passed to other deaf children within the classrooms. At around the same time, a private signing tutor from Ireland, Dora Mitchell, was teaching a small group of deaf children in Christchurch. Hence NZSL has some influences from British Sign Language (BSL) (McKee, 2001).

Over time, NZSL naturally has found its own strength to expand and develop. In the early 1990's NZSL was recognised officially at Kelston Deaf Education Centre in Auckland and bilingualism was soon introduced in schools for the Deaf.  Further strategies for Deaf education were developed in the early 2000’s as nearly all Deaf children are now placed in mainstream schools. As a result, NZSL is more visible within mainstream schools due to teachers of the Deaf and NZSL tutors visiting and supporting a Deaf child in the classroom with other hearing children.


Baynton. D, (1996). Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press.

McKee, R. (2001). People of the Eyes: Stories from the Deaf World. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.

Tapio. E., & Takkinen. R. (2012). Dangerous Multilingualism: Northern Perspectives on Order, Purity and Normality. When One of Your Languages is not Recognised as a Language at all. Hampshire, Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

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