For the Deaf community in Australia, Auslan is recognised not only as the language by which they communicate, but the central feature which identifies them as a cultural group. Members of the Church who identify as Deaf are not able to participate in liturgical music in the ordinary way, and so they may miss out on all the valuable forms of participation which singing and liturgical music provide: sung prayer and praise; the beauty of music and its emotional force; the synergy between music and lyrics which can lift Scripture and prayer to a different plane; and singing together as one with the rest of the community gathered at prayer.
As a community which seeks to be inclusive for all members, there are multiple ways in which the the music ministry, and in particular children, can support Deaf members of our community so that they can participate more fully in liturgical music and hence in the liturgy itself. Signing as we sing is a gesture of inclusiveness towards the Deaf community, and acknowledges the beauty and facility of this visual/gestural Australian language. When hearing children learn to sign, they are learning another language and they are learning the importance of spreading the Word in as many different ways as possible. It’s also a great way to teach some elements of Auslan to the rest of the assembly.
It is not difficult for children to learn a basic repertoire of signs from Auslan – God, praise, thanks, Jesus, love, belong, family, follow, heart and so on, and to use them as they sing. There is an online database of Auslan signs with videos that are very easy to access. If you begin by signing just key words from a refrain from one song, then the burden of memorising a large number of signs before you even start is minimised. And each time the refrain returns and you repeat the signs, they’re fixed more firmly in your memory.
Because of the nature of liturgical song, its vocabulary is fairly consistent and repetitive, so for each new song there are just a few new signs to learn, and then another song can be added to the children’s sung/signed repertoire. The parts of the Mass are the most obvious starting point. The Kyrie for instance uses only three or four signs in total. The Lamb of God similarly has a limited, repetitive range and also uses some signs in common with the Kyrie.
Body, mind and spirit
For children, signing is easy to learn and fun to do. It’s something like dancing: rhythmic body movements that allow a more whole-body response to the music. That the signs are also expressing the words and thoughts of the songs is an added bonus. It connects the words they’re singing to the rest of their bodies, and demands more mental concentration. But go slowly: the more signs the children learn, the more complicated the signing becomes. Be careful that it doesn’t reach a point where signing detracts from the quality of the singing, or where the singers are so preoccupied with trying to remember a sequence of signs that they forget to sing!
When teaching a new song in sign, you have the option of signing it word by word or of signing the basic meaning behind the words, in a more dynamic translation. At an early stage, Key Word signing is easiest, since the one-to-one correspondence between word and action is direct and immediate. Although not ideal as a channel of communication with the Deaf community, it is one way to build a repertoire of signs for singing and signing in Auslan.
If your goal is to sign like a native signer, you have a more challenging task ahead. Meaning in Auslan is conveyed by Deaf signers in a personal and often idiomatic way. Auslan may have a different word order; one sign may encompass a whole phrase, or one or two English words may take a long sequence of signs to express. This is not to say that signing in Auslan is too difficult. It may simply take a little longer, as learning any language does.
Written by Patricia Smith, Children’s Music Advisor for Willow Publishing