Wellington’s secret sign language community

CQ Hotel has a sign language menu

I’ve always wanted to be bilingual. I spent 3 years trying to learn French in school because someone told me it was the easiest, but the diacritics bewildered me. My partner speaks German, so I listened to a Beginner’s German podcast every night for years and not one word stuck. I tried so hard to properly pronounce Maori place names but my Southland roots meant I couldn’t get the R’s right.

When I was introduced to New Zealand Sign Language, I had a “wow” moment. No macrons, umlauts or tricky R’s in sight. The class was full immersion but I still understood every instruction. The sign for the letter D actually looks like a D. You gesture a march to sign the month of March. NZSL was beautiful, the Deaf culture was fascinating, and I was hooked. You can hold a conversation with your mouth full, in a club with loud music, to someone in the car next to you… and life becomes more accessible for those who are Deaf or hearing-impaired.

Learning NZSL has also opened my eyes to just how equal-opportunity Wellington is. For starters, I had heaps of classes to choose from. Wellington High School and Tawa College both have Community Education night classes that are subsidised for NZ citizens, making it only $65 for an 8 week course. If you want to get the whole workplace involved, NZSL4U also offer classes that can come to you!

If, like me, you reach the end and need to do more, you can major in Deaf Studies at Victoria University (which also offers the only course in NZ designed for Deaf learners). Their Deaf Studies Research Unit has recently launched LearnNZSL, a free online portal where you can watch, learn and practice NZSL while you’re sitting on the couch. They have also developed a dictionary app you can download for free! This has saved me mid-conversation more times than I can count.

There are Deaf events happening in Wellington all the time. During September, there will be a Deaf Hip Hop artist in town, a Deaf short film festival, fortnightly Deaf Club meet ups, Deaf rugby matches and more.

CQ Restaurant on Cuba Street has an entire sign language menu, and the alphabet on the wall in case you get stuck. It was here I learned the signs for noodle and chicken. You can order a coffee from Co’Ed Café on Queens in Lower Hutt using NZSL and they won’t bat an eye – they all know NZSL and some of the staff are Deaf.

Wellington seems to be leading the way in accessibility, diversity and equality for the Deaf community and it’s so easy to get amongst it.


This blog post is one of the first of many to come under our new section “Inside Wellington”.

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