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About NZSL

What is NZSL?

One of the three official languages of Aotearoa, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is a distinct language. Deaf people and those affiliated with the Deaf community use NZSL.

Like other signed languages, NZSL is a visual-gestural language. Speakers of NZSL use the hands, the body, and facial expressions to convey meaning.

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

Read more about NZSL

Sign Language in the New Zealand Curriculum - What is New Zealand Sign Language? – local navigation of Te Kete Ipurangi.
Scroll down to the subheading "What is New Zealand Sign Language?" for further information about NZSL.

Communicating in NZSL

NZSL uses signs as the means to communicate. Five elements make up each sign, and these elements combine in different ways to make meaning.

Five factors used to form signs

  • Handshape – the shape at the start of a sign
  • Location (use of space) – where the sign is articulated, either on the body or in the signing space
  • Movement – the direction, speed, repetition, and manner convey meaning in signing
  • Orientation  – the way the palms of the hands are facing at the start of sign
  • Non-manual signals – grammatical meaning made via facial expressions and movements of various body

Non-manual signals, essential in multi-channel signs, have no equivalent in English. These signals are expressed with mouth movement, the hands and different facial expressions, and movements of body parts such as the shoulders.

An important aspect of NZSL is that signers can, by using space, show multiple ideas simultaneously (for example, one hand can be used to show a person approaching someone at the same time as the other hand shows the other person sitting down).

In NZSL facial expressions, often called "facial grammar", are the equivalent of vocal intonations in spoken language because in NZSL, facial expressions clarify meanings related to grammar and intensity. For signers, clearly seeing each other’s faces and hands is important because this allows then to make sense of what meaning is being conveyed.

Hearing people, who are not used to the level of facial and body movement Deaf people use when conversing in NZSL, can often misunderstand Deaf people.

For example, hearing people may misinterpret furrowed eyebrows and the rapid arm movements Deaf make when they are signing as agitation or hostility. In addition, 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

While signs are made with one or two hands, the dominant hand is your most active hand when you are signing.

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. Asymmetrical signing is when the dominant hand moves more than the other one.

Formation of signs

Grammatical terms and conventions of New Zealand Sign Language – local navigation of Te Kete Ipurangi
Scroll down to the subheading "Grammatical terms and conventions of New Zealand Sign Language" for further information 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, while non-manual signals are represented on a line above the capital letters.

Example of glossing


Examples of glossing are in the unit descriptions and 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. Essentially, glossing is a written version 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.

NOTE: Introductory resources to NZSL at curriculum levels 1 and 2 do not contain all the examples of glossing listed in the NZSL guidelines (NZSLiNZC).


Grammatical terms and conventions of New Zealand Sign Language – local navigation of Te Kete Ipurangi
Scroll down to the subheading "Glossing", and you will find general points to note about glossing conventions widely used in sign language teaching and learning materials. 

You can also study examples of sign glosses and their meanings.


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.

New Zealand Sign Language Finger Spelling, letters U V W X

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.

Image reproduced courtesy of Deaf Studies Research Unit: Victoria University of Wellington; copying restricted to use by the New Zealand education sector.

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 (for example, someone from the past, someone not in the room), the signer may raise eyebrows, implicitly asking, “Do you know who I mean?”.

In such situations, the person they are signing to confirms their understanding by nodding. Respond straight away. Doing so means the signer does not need to give more detail or ask you directly if you know the person. Thus, the flow of the signed conversation is seamless.

Visual noise

Deaf people are sensitive to “visual noise” just as hearing people are sensitive to loud auditory noise. Visual noise could include brightly coloured and patterned clothing or dangling jewellery close to the face. These items can distract people’s eyes when they are conversing in NZSL.

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