It comes as no surprise that with the current ban on singing in Victorian schools, our ever-resourceful music teachers are looking for creative and safe ways to involve students in end of year celebrations and graduations. With the increased exposure of Auslan in mainstream media through the bushfire season and of course this whole dreadful COVID business, it makes sense that teachers are considering using Auslan in their music classes. It is wonderful to see the substantial recognition that Auslan is getting from mainstream media which has resulted in a massive interest — and that Auslan courses are booked out to the maximum.
For the last 11 years, I have been working as a music teacher at a Deaf school in Melbourne. I have had to learn Auslan to do my job. And I still am still very much learning.
Music teachers are becoming interested in using Auslan as a way to include students in singing-replacement activities. I was asked to write something about the use of Auslan under these circumstances. Because the Deaf community is not primarily my cultural community I felt it was not appropriate that I speak for them, although this message has since been read by members of that community. So I am writing this as a music teacher — to my music teacher community – sharing my knowledge and experience with Auslan.
Here’s some things to think about if you are considering using Auslan in your school music program — or any school program.
Firstly, what is Auslan?
Auslan, or Australian Sign Language is the native sign language of the Deaf community. As a cultural group, it is appropriate to use a capital ‘D’ when referring to a Deaf person from this community. The language has its own grammar, sentence structure, and uses facial expression and specific areas of the body as part of the language. Also, Auslan is not written with ‘all capitals’.
You can find more information about Auslan here.
It can be fun to learn a few Auslan signs. But learning a few signs isn’t learning Auslan nor makes one fluent in the language.
What isn’t Auslan?
Auslan is not English in sign language. It isn’t ‘actions’ to words. And it certainly isn’t ‘choralography’ (I never, ever will like that word!). With its own sentence and grammatical structure, Auslan signs can’t be imposed over English words as the language then makes no sense due to the structure, similarly found in other non-English languages.
So how do you interpret songs into Auslan?
Songs are not ‘translated’ straightforwardly from English into Auslan - they are interpreted, and every Auslan user and interpreter would come up with their own interpretation of the same song given the chance. Songs are full of idioms, imagery and metaphors and as you might imagine, interpreting these into Auslan would not be easy! You have to convey the meaning of the metaphor, not the translation of the English language.
If the Auslan and message of the song cannot be understood by a Deaf Auslan user then it can’t be used in our choirs. (Also, important to note that because of the language structure, one doesn’t sing along when signing.)
If you are copying an Auslan video without knowing the signs, how would you ‘teach’ Auslan to your students? How would you know what sign is what word? Or if you are using an Auslan dictionary to seek out signs, how will you know the order and structure required? Auslan is very context dependent and there are dialects to think of too. Sometimes it is appropriate to ‘make up’ signs to describe something but this involves a specific process that would include the input and consultation of a few Deaf people or community. How will you know if you are using a true sign or a descriptive one? For example, in a song I am doing currently with my students, the lyrics are ‘The call of the birds bring the break of day’. We are signing Morning, Sunrise, Birds, Sing. The words don’t match the signs as they play out in real time and we are also incorporating culturally appropriate features such as pace, facial expression and upper body movement.
Authentic Cultural Experiences
We should be striving to offer our students authentic cultural learning experiences. We want our students to learn to respect different cultures and their customs and traditions. Auslan is at the heart of the culture of the Deaf community and therefore it should be taught by a native user. Consider this in parallel with the wishes of Indigenous people to be able to share their own culture, stories and history.
Is it a problem if I use Auslan with my choir?
In short, highly likely.
When I started learning Auslan it was all I could talk about. I love the language so much, and as a musician and conductor, the link with non-verbal communication and expression was profound. I wanted to use Auslan every day in every way and probably — almost certainly — made every mistake in the book regarding its use. I know much better now. At the request of the Deaf community, they ask we don’t use Auslan without proper instruction and direction.
Unless a Deaf Auslan user is involved in teaching the song, bringing the correct cultural and linguistic references, it is unlikely that the language will be used correctly. This is incredibly important to the Deaf community, a minority group, who have fought for the right to use their language and to have their language used correctly by others.
Incorrect use of a language of a minority group is cultural appropriation. It is important that a Deaf person be able to understand the performance of your song. If not, the language has been misused or appropriated, even if unintentionally.
Hopefully this nasty COVID virus will be gone and before too long we can resume singing and playing our wind and brass instruments. But music teachers are a creative cohort, so maybe for this especially odd year we make our graduations songs instrumental items instead, or maybe include student compositions or maybe even accompany a recorded song?
And you know what? This in itself makes a really important learning opportunity for you to share with your students. If you have started a song in Auslan and now have second thoughts about continuing, then you can use this as an opportunity to explain to the students why and how you have come to this decision. We really have no shortage of musical activities to do with our students, so at this time, in this unforgettable year where teachers have demonstrated flexibility in unquantifiable measures, we might just need to accept that we will have to do something else instead.
Karen Kyriakou is a music teacher and freelance educator working with arts organisations including MSO, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Recital Centre and ANAM. In 2012 she won a Churchill Fellowship, travelling to the UK to investigate inclusive ways of bringing authentic educational and musical experiences to Deaf children in schools.
Rachelle Stevens is an experienced classroom teacher, Deaf herself, and an all-round awesome person. She meticulously checked this article to make sure I represented the views of her Deaf community correctly.
Photo:The fabulous Trudy Fraser and me practising for the Auslan Choir which we sometimes lead at the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Trudy is Deaf and an amazing co-choir leader.