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PNG ‘culture sign’ can’t be pidgin-holed

Date: 6 September 2019

Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations, with 0.1% of the global population living in one percent of the world’s area, speaking a full ten per cent of the world’s languages. However, until now the sign language situation in PNG has been almost completely unknown outside the country.

Centre Affiliate Lauren Reed, a recently graduated Master’s student, is working to showcase the sign language situation in PNG to a wider audience.

Lauren explains that there are two main types of sign language in PNG. “The first variety is Papua New Guinea Sign Language or PNGSL, which developed out of an Australian ‘sign system’ called Signed English, which was introduced to PNG in 1990,” Lauren says. “In deaf schools in PNG, teachers sign Signed English signs alongside spoken English or spoken Tok Pisin, an English-based creole.

Lauren Reed with the PNG Deaf Association

Lauren Reed with members of the PNG Deaf Association

Beginning in 1990, deaf people who attended signing schools took this input and fused it with indigenous ways of signing. The result is a natural sign language: PNGSL. 

Lauren worked with PNGSL users in Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. “The deaf community in Port Moresby is small, numbering around 100 people – but fierce,” she says. “They are immensely proud of both PNGSL and indigenous ways of signing, which they call ‘culture sign’. The community are active in making up deaf rugby sides, attending churches with signed services, and advocating for interpreting services and better deaf education in PNG.”

The other main type of sign language in PNG is known as culture sign or aksen (Tok Pisin, from English “action”). Chief Investigator Alan Rumsey is working with Lauren on culture sign in PNG's rural Western Highlands. Most deaf people in PNG can use culture sign; exceptions are people who are hard of hearing or became deaf late in life, who might prefer speaking and lipreading.

“Culture sign refers firstly to the language a deaf person uses with their family, friends and wider community,” Lauren adds. “Individual culture sign varieties vary in complexity because they are tied to the amount of regular and fluent interaction the deaf person has with people who sign.”

Culture sign also refers to the flexible and creative ways deaf and hearing people make meaning with each other, even if they have never met before. PNGSL signers can rely on a large vocabulary known by other PNGSL signers. When using culture sign, however, signers must use a creative melange of resources including iconic signs, pointing, pantomime, mouthing words, and tracing images or letters on the ground or the body, as in this example:

PNG is a developing nation and is Australia’s closest neighbour. Through CoEDL, Lauren is supporting the Port Moresby deaf community’s development goals. In 2020, she will travel to PNG to produce a picture dictionary of PNGSL with the support of charity Buk Bilong Pikinini and the Australian Linguistic Society’s Jalwang Scholarship.

“Research into culture sign gives us insight into the irrepressible human drive to communicate, and how our desire to make meaning with one another transcends the boundaries of fixed, standardised languages,” Lauren says.


Lauren Reed’s Master’s thesis, ‘Sign Languages of Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea, and their Challenges for Sign Language Typology’ is available from the ANU website.

Alan Rumsey and Lauren Reed

Alan Rumsey and Lauren reed being interviewed about their work in PNG. 

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