A student-led sign language club is helping Wellington students communicate while also raising awareness of one of New Zealand’s three official languages.

When deaf student Zoe Ferguson started Year 9 at St Mary’s College, Wellington, only a few of her hearing friends knew some basic sign language. Now in Year 13, she leads the school’s flourishing sign language club, which attracts more than 20 members each week to its meetings.

“We have a conversation; I don’t stand at the front of the class and teach at them. We sit there and we have group conversations – it’s a much more natural way of learning,” says Zoe.

“It means that a lot of the [hearing] students are able to communicate with me and also there’s a greater awareness about deaf culture and about sign language.”

While in Year 9, Zoe’s friends learned basic signs from a deaf woman who visited at lunchtimes. Although there was no formal instruction for the next few years, Zoe’s friends could communicate with her through signs, and their knowledge of the language continually improved. Then, last year, her English teacher began learning sign language through night classes.

“She thought it would be really cool if we could start the sign language club up again, but this time I would be the leader, rather than having an external deaf woman come into the school,” says Zoe.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a position like that, teaching other students. I was leading the class but there was also my English teacher, Charlotte Meyer, and an interpreter was there to support the language.”

Zoe says it is important that teachers learn basic signs if there is a deaf student in the school  as communicating through a teacher-aide or interpreter can cause people to hold back.

“It means that the teacher can be much more engaging with the deaf student,” she says.

“Having somebody who was actually able to sign to me made a huge difference in my education because it meant I was able to have a better relationship with them.”

Turning the tables

Zoe and Isy have a conversation in sign language.

Zoe’s friend, Head Girl Isy Pou, is also a member of the club. She knew no sign language when she started Year 9, so communicating was initially difficult between the two.

“I didn’t actually join the sign language club until Zoe was leading it, but I’ve been Zoe’s friend since Year 9 so I picked it up through just learning from her,” she says.

“I had to ask lots and lots of questions; Zoe was really patient. Every lunchtime I’d sit with Zoe and we’d learn a new sign, we’d have a bit of a conversation, we’d use our cellphones sometimes to communicate because we couldn’t communicate with sign language yet.”

While Isy joined the club to be better able to communicate with Zoe, she also believes New Zealanders need to better recognise all of our official languages.

“The sign language club has allowed the tables to turn … it’s always been me interpreting for Zoe or me assisting Zoe in communication with our other friends, but at the sign language club it’s really where she gets to express herself fully and it’s me who’s having to have the interpreter there for me,” says Isy.

Learning opportunity

Principal Catherine Ryan says having a deaf student has been a great learning opportunity for the school community.

“There’s a growing number of students becoming very interested in sign language,” she says.

“We take opportunities for the interpreter to speak to us and to teach us some sign language, but as a school we have realised that we need to be doing more with the whole school community.”

The school is proud of the progress made by the club, she says, and is looking for further opportunities to embrace deaf culture. It is important for everyone to be able to voice any ideas or needs they have identified to help support deaf students, she believes.

“This would be something that we would target and recognise for discussion and for ongoing attention within our school. We really want more of our students involved, we want more of our staff involved and understanding, we want to recognise the significance of sign language.”

New Zealand Sign Language Week

The 2019 New Zealand Sign Language Week runs from Monday to Sunday,
6–12 May. As part of the week’s celebrations, Deaf Aotearoa provides free NZSL Taster Classes around the country.

Source: Education Gazette

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