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About NZSL

What is NZSL?

NZSL is a distinct New Zealand natural language. It is a visual-gestural language, where the hands, the body, and facial expressions are used to make meaning.

NZSL has no written form of expression. You cannot write someone a note in NZSL, but you can record one on video. When NZSL users communicate in writing, for example, by email, they use languages such as English and te reo Māori.

Read more about NZSL.

Communicating in NZSL

NZSL uses signs as the means to communicate. Five elements make up each sign. The video scenes and clips illustrate how these elements combine in different ways to make meaning. They are:

  • handshapes
  • location
  • movement
  • palm orientation
  • non-manual signals

Non-manual signals include various kinds of facial expression and movements of different parts of the body. When combined in different ways, they create the capacity for NZSL to express any meaning imaginable, which is an important facility of any language.

Just as vocal intonation is vital in spoken languages to clarify meanings related to grammar and intensity, facial expressions serve this function in NZSL and are often referred to as "facial grammar". It is important for signers to see each other’s faces and hands clearly in order to make sense of what is being conveyed.

Deaf people can often be misunderstood by hearing people who are not used to the level of facial and body movement Deaf people use when conversing in NZSL. Furrowed eyebrows and the rapid arm movements they make when signing can be misinterpreted as agitation or hostility by hearing people. Moreover, when a Deaf person is talking, the facial expressions they use to construct some questions can lead others to think they are unhappy or worried.

Dominant hand

The dominant hand is your most active hand when you are signing. Signs are made with one or two hands. If you have left-handed students, then they will use their left hand for one-handed signs. With two-handed signs, both hands may do an equal amount of work in shaping a sign. This is known as symmetrical signing. With asymmetrical signing, the dominant hand moves more than the other one.

Read more about the formation of signs.


Glossing is a way of representing signs and non-manual signals in writing. It uses capital letters to represent signs. Non-manual signals are represented on a line above the capital letters, for example:


You will see examples of glossing in the unit descriptions and in the video scene transcripts. Glossing is not a translation into English. It uses NZSL grammar, which is different from the grammar of English and other spoken languages. Glossing is, as close as it is possible to be, a written form of NZSL.

With time, you and your students will start to become familiar with some of the conventions of NZSL glossing. The video scene transcripts and the examples of sentence patterns will be useful for this. They will enable you and your students to compare the sentence patterns and grammar of NZSL with English and see the different ways that ideas are expressed in the two languages.

Please note that the glossing used in this resource is mostly compatible with that used in the NZSL guidelines (NZSLiNZC). Although glossing is consistent within the resource, it has been simplified in places to assist you and your students in the beginning stages of learning.

Find out more about glossing.

This resource is an introduction to NZSL at curriculum levels 1 and 2. For that reason, it does not contain all the examples of glossing listed in the NZSL guidelines (NZSLiNZC).


NZSL uses a two-handed fingerspelling system to represent the English alphabet. Fingerspelling is primarily used for proper names. When fingerspelling, it is important to keep eye contact with the person you are communicating with. Don’t look down at your fingers. Unit 1 has more information on fingerspelling and how it is used.

As a result of exposure to overseas programmes on television, some of your students may also be familiar with a one-handed fingerspelling system, such as the one used by signers of American Sign Language.

Regional variations

Because of the way the language developed in different parts of New Zealand, NZSL has regional variations. There are also variations in the way Deaf people sign, just as people have different accents and ways of expressing themselves in spoken languages. You will see two variations for the number nine in this resource. Other variations are not included as this resource includes vocabulary and sentence patterns for beginning learners. As they progress their learning, your students will become aware of some of the other language variations that exist among NZSL users.

Name signs

Deaf people often give name signs to others. It can take time for Deaf people to decide on a name sign for another person. Personal sign names are frequently used, for example, in introductions. It is not culturally appropriate for people to give themselves a sign name. A person’s sign name is usually drawn from:

  • a personality trait, such as having a huge smile (BEAM)
  • their appearance, such as wearing a lot of earrings (EARRINGS)
  • a name (Angela might become ANGEL)
  • their hobby or job (for example, CAMERA).

Real-world orientation

If an item being referred to is physically in the room, for example, TEACHER, TABLE, or BOOK, or if the item referred to is known to be in a certain direction, for example, FIELD or BUS, you point to where the item is located. This is known as real-world orientation. It is an important feature of NZSL.

Sustaining communication

When a signer is referring to someone who is not immediately identifiable – perhaps they are not present or are someone from the past – the signer may raise their eyebrows, implicitly asking “Do you know who I mean?”. In such situations, the person they are signing to confirms their understanding by nodding. It is important to be mindful of this and respond straight away, to avoid a signer having to give more detail or needing to ask you directly if you know the person, breaking the flow of the signed conversation.

Visual noise

Deaf people are sensitive to “visual noise” just as hearing people are sensitive to loud auditory noise. Brightly coloured and patterned clothing, as well as dangling jewellery close to the face, can distract people’s eyes when they are conversing in NZSL.

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