What is sign language and Auslan?

A sign language is a visual, spatial and gestural language with its own structure, and whose grammar is characterised by the expressive richness of the body, space and movement.

Each country will usually have its own sign language, including its own dialects – some were developed recently while many others are centuries old.

The International Signs (known as IS) is a collection of the most common signs derived from some of the main sign languages so many signers could understand each other more freely without communication barriers when travelling.

Auslan is the sign language of the Australian Deaf community. The term Auslan is short for “Australian Sign Language”, coined by Trevor Johnston in the early 1980s, although the language itself is much older, going back 200+ years.

Auslan relies on a combination of handshapes, movements and facial expressions to deliver messages Its components include:

Handshape – there are 38 main handshapes with 28 variants in Auslan

Orientation – this is the direction of your palm and hand in relation to your body

Location – signs are made near different parts of the body to convey meaning

Movement – small or large movements of the head, arms and hands can suggest different words

Expression – head and facial movements or expressions are used to convey emotion and emphasis

Did you know that – Just like English, Spanish or Chinese, Auslan is recognised as a language in its own right. Auslan was recognised as a community language by the Australian Government in 1991.


Darlene Thornton

As a third-generation Deaf Australian, Darlene has been involved with teaching, training, researching and writing on Auslan, Auslan linguistics, Sign Language interpreting, and Australian Deaf History for over 20 years.

Being a voluntary Deaf Interpreter/Translator on and off for many years, Darlene has seen how this “industry” has evolved over time in Australia and has been involved with much dialogue on the development of the profession.

Her passions lie in both Auslan linguistics and Australian Deaf History – she enjoys the hunt and likes to explain how languages work.