New Zealand Sign Language and Te Reo



There are two languages that I believe would be immensely helpful for the typical English-speaking New Zealander to know: indigenous (te reo Māori), and sign language (NZSL).

I know neither. And thus, I feel like a tourist in my own country.

As is the social typicality for an individual, my sphere of interactions tend to be with others of similar ilk — hearing English-speakers — so I’ve had no evident ‘need’ to learn either language. But sometimes I feel the lack.

I feel it when I’m trying to yell a sentence to one of my children over the hubbub of Spotify and a hollering sibling.

I feel it when I’m walking past a sign full of vowels and I have no clue what it says, and I feel like an idiot because I’ve lived in New Zealand about thirty years and I still can’t read it.

I do know someone who would know the Maori language and culture well, but I’m not confident in asking her to speak it with me, or teach me any sentences. She’d probably teach me to say something like “I am a donkey’s arse,” under the pretense it’s a friendly informal introduction. She’d think it was hilarious. (She’d be right, objectively, but I wouldn’t find it funny at whatever time I’d have the misfortune to use it in the wild.)

I started doing the free te reo Māori lessons at, and found them helpful, interesting, and non-intimidating. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be teaching me to call myself any part of a donkey for their own amusement.

But as is the way with any language, so I’m told, one needs to actually use it in regular conversation for it to stick. And without this stickability, my enthusiasm for learning the language waned, and my visits to Tokureo slowed. And then stopped. And most of what I’d taken in, fell out.

I’ve experienced similar hurdles with NZ Sign Language, vacillating between speed and stall. If someone among my acquaintance knows NZSL, I’m unaware of it. All I know of the language, I’ve learned from the online dictionary at And that’s just individual words. I’ve read that NZSL grammar is very different from spoken language, and I have no idea how the signs are meant to go together.

My younger son is deaf in only one ear, and as his hearing tests fine in the other, audiologists tell me any language aid is unnecessary. They may be right in the bigger picture, but I’d found a few things to be helpful accompaniment anyway, in his toddler days. Particularly if there were multiple sounds, from different directions, vying for his attention. Or if he was lying on his good ear. Gestures for events like nappy changes, toothbrushing, and common instructions (like “get off” or “clean up”) accompanying the verbal remark, made it less likely for me to have to repeat myself.

But mostly, I’d like to be able to surmount the isolation barrier. My isolation from the deaf. My isolation from the language that characterizes my country.

I remember, with painful clarity, a time ten years ago when I was sitting on a train, a short distance from a group of girls who had been laughing and signing to each other in wild enthusiasm. In my peripheral vision I saw one of them gesture at me, then a few others also tried to get my attention. I was terrified of the social paralysis I would surely feel when they’d sign something at me and I wouldn’t understand. So I kept my eyes down, and pretended I hadn’t seen them.

That would have been rude for anyone, but it this context I now recall it with particular horror.

When a hand waved right in front of my face I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen it any longer, so I looked up, with what I hoped was a convincing, ‘Oh, hi, this is the first moment I’ve seen you’ kind of expression. Sure enough, I didn’t understand their speech, or what they were signing at me. My impression was that they were expressing admiration of my hair (which was blue at the time), so I just smiled and said thank you, trying to keep my lip movements clear and readable. Hoping they’d know what I’d said.

The next time I meet a person who is deaf, I want to be able to talk with them. (Since the train incident, I’ve learned how to sign ‘thank you’. Perhaps I should also learn, ‘This is all I know — please don’t expect me to sign anything else.’)

And, though I imagine it’s improbable I’d meet a te reo speaker who didn’t know English just as well or better, I imagine that my knowing the language would make me feel more ‘kiwi’, having a fuller appreciation for the facets of New Zealand. After all, Maori language signs are everywhere (not nearly as much as English, granted, but there’s a big enough presence for me to feel like a confused tourist for not understanding them), and Māori language and icons are regarded as an intrinsic part of ‘kiwi culture’, even beyond those who have indigenous ethnicity. It forms the character of New Zealand.

So, if I don’t understand this characteristic language or culture, on what basis do I feel like a kiwi?

I don’t.

I value Australia just as much, simply for having lived there, too. (And isn’t that just an extremely unpatriotic thing to say…)

But, I imagine if I understood the indigenous language, I would feel more of an affinity for my country. Not to mention, I’d appreciate the clarity of understanding what all those vowel-ridden posters and buildings are saying.

Unlike European countries, New Zealand doesn’t share borders with countries of other languages. (Or other countries at all.) How important or useful is it for me to know French or Spanish, really?

Much lesser than if I lived anywhere in the Americas.

I used to subscribe to the rationale of, “Oh, but I might travel one day. I might go to France. It’ll be helpful to know French, then.”

Sure, any New Zealander might travel to Europe one day. But it’s far more likely they’ll travel around the block before then. And there, they’ll find an understanding of te reo Māori far more useful than French.

Anyway, I did go to France. And what I knew of the French language didn’t even help. Not when it was in my foreign accent. Kiwi-accented English got me further than Kiwi-accented French.

Actually, to be fair, I was in Paris. And to say Paris represents France may be just as unrealistic and unfair as to say Auckland represents New Zealand. Anyone who claims to have experienced New Zealand just because they stayed in an inner-city Auckland hotel for week and went up the Sky Tower, should seriously question their right to travel privileges.


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