A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Letters


By Rachel McKee, Victoria University of Wellington



Last year, I spotted this new sign by the entrance level lifts at the Ministry of Education head office. NZSL has been sanctioned in education since the 1990s (after an earlier policy era of “sitting on hands”), but a 2013 report by the Human Rights Commission highlighted that deaf children still have inadequate access to NZSL, which prompted the Ministry of Education to undertake some action. (Including the new sign.)

My first impression of the sign that day was positive: it expresses the Ministry’s acknowledgement of both official minority languages, Te Reo Māori and NZSL, and their relevance to learners in this country. The choice of message translated into each language, “Welcome”, implies the State’s commitment to including these two language communities in the planning and delivery of education, given that the sign is located at a head office where decision-making takes place.

Signage that includes Te Reo Māori is familiar in our landscape of public institutions, but NZSL is rarely seen in this context. So I did a double-take when I noticed this gesture of recognition in such a politically pertinent location. And then my eyes narrowed. Why? There is a problem with the way the NZSL community has been welcomed: no actual NZSL signer would express the concept “welcome” in this way. It’s as odd as if an English speaker spelled the word aloud – “Hello and w-e-l-c-o-m-e”. Really! In NZSL, welcome is expressed like this (see a video at http://nzsl.vuw.ac.nz/signs/764):


Despite popular belief, fingerspelling (representing letters on the hands) is just a tiny part of communication in NZSL. It is used for proper names, or technical terms that don’t have an equivalent sign. The decision to use fingerspelled letters to symbolise NZSL on the Ministry sign seems to be design-driven: it fits neatly into a horizontal line below the Māori text. Capturing sign language in a print medium is tricky, since signs take space and are attached to a body and a face. But replacing meaningful signs from the language with symbols that are conveniently ‘font-like’ doesn’t ring true as a message of personal or linguistic acknowledgement to people who use that language. The trilingual sign is well-intentioned but perhaps under-informed in execution. Good effort, could do better.

Rachel McKee

Rachel McKee is Programme Director of Deaf Studies. Teaching New Zealand Sign Language), and introductory and intermediate NZSL courses, Rachel also supervises post-graduate research topics in Deaf Studies and Interpreting within the MA in Applied Linguistics and PhD in Applied Linguistics. Rachel has published research across a wide range of areas in Deaf Studies including sign language interpreting, linguistic analysis of NZSL, sociolinguistic issues in NZSL, and deaf children in schools. Rachel is a member of the Deaf Studies Research Unit, which recently developed an Online Dictionary of NZ Sign Language and conducted a three-year project investigating sociolinguistic variation in NZSL.

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