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NZ Sign Language to become third official language

Hon Ruth Dyson
Minister for Disability Issues

6 April 2006 Media Release

New Zealand Sign Language to become third official language

Disability Issues Minister Ruth Dyson will today celebrate with the Deaf community the expected official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language.

The immediate effect of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill, which is expected to pass this afternoon after its third reading, will be to provide people with the right to use and access New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) in legal proceedings, including in court.

"Official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language is a monumental achievement for the Deaf community which has been seeking this for 20 years," said Ms Dyson.

"New Zealand Sign Language is part of New Zealand’s rich cultural diversity. It is used by approximately 28,000 people - an estimated 7,000 of these people are Deaf."

The purpose of the Bill is to promote and maintain the use of New Zealand Sign Language by declaring it to be an official language of New Zealand. It provides for the use of New Zealand Sign Language in legal proceedings and enables the making of regulations to set competency standards for interpretation in legal proceedings.

It sets out principles to guide government departments in the use of New Zealand Sign Language, and it provides for a review of the operation of the Act three years after it comes into force.

"New Zealand Sign Language is a language native to our country. It has a unique linguistic structure and includes signs that express concepts from Maori culture.

"The passing of this Bill will mark a major reversal in the suppression of the Deaf Community’s language and culture. It will be a substantial step towards achieving our vision of an inclusive society," says Ms Dyson.

The minister will host members of the Deaf community at a celebration at the Beehive tonight following the third reading of the Bill.


Questions and Answers
How will the Bill help Deaf people and the Deaf community?
The Bill is expected to benefit Deaf New Zealanders by enabling their own unique language to be accorded equal status with that of spoken languages and by providing better access to justice. Māori Deaf report that official recognition of NZSL will increase the likelihood of their being able to use NZSL at hui, marae events, and tangi, and increase their access to Māori language and culture, including whakapapa.

What will the impact be on people who are not deaf?
Parents of Deaf children will benefit through recognition of New Zealand Sign Language, which, being wholly visual, is the main accessible language for deaf children (about 95% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents). Hearing people with deaf family members will also benefit through having a way for greater inclusion of deaf family members in family and community life.

Society in general will benefit from the greater participation in, and contribution to, New Zealand society by Deaf New Zealanders. Society will also benefit from a greater appreciation of Deaf people’s culture, which includes their unique language. The proposal will not impose specific obligations on the private sector.

Is Sign Language an official language in any other country?
The European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for legislation to recognise sign languages and some member States have done so, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal and Greece.
Sign language is also officially recognised by some states and provinces in Canada and the United States of America.

Is NZSL a real language?
Yes. It is a wholly visual language, with a grammatical structure different to that of English and Māori. NZSL is not an improvised sequence of gestures or mime. Like all other human languages it is able to communicate a full range of ideas and to serve a wide range of functions. NZSL, being completely visual, is the most accessible language for Deaf people.

How many people use NZSL in New Zealand?
Census 2001 data shows that 28,000 New Zealanders (including both Deaf and hearing people) use NZSL, and there are at least 210,000 deaf or hearing impaired people in New Zealand.

Are sign languages universal?
No, sign languages are not universal. NZSL is unique to New Zealand. It is also unique in that it includes signs that express concepts from Māori culture, and Māori Deaf usually identify as belonging to the Deaf community.

What is Deaf culture?
NZSL is central to Deaf culture. The capitalised “D” is used to denote a distinct cultural group of people who are deaf, use NZSL as their first or preferred language, and identify with the Deaf community and Deaf culture. Deaf culture, like all cultures, incorporates a rich body of distinct Deaf customs, mannerisms, art, humour and history. The New Zealand Deaf community is a vibrant and active community that comes together regularly at Deaf clubs, annual Deaf sports event, conferences, workshops, and other social gatherings.

How will this Bill affect the status of English and Māori as New Zealand’s official languages?
There are two official languages in New Zealand: English and Māori. The NZSL Bill will not affect the status of these languages.
Māori Deaf report that official recognition of NZSL will increase the likelihood of their being able to use NZSL at hui, marae events, and tangi, and therefore increase their access to Māori language and culture, including whakapapa.

For further information see the Office for Disability Issues website:

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