Auslan, Signed English, Key Word Sign – What’s the difference?

Written by Karen Bloomberg

Auslan (Australian Sign Language)

Auslan is the language of the deaf community in Australia. People who are born deaf, who become deaf early in life or who are children of deaf parents will often learn and use sign language. It is a visual language, as rich and as complex as any spoken language. Even though the underlying structure of sign language is similar across cultures, different countries have their own sign languages. In Australia, the deaf community uses Auslan, in America they use American Sign Language (A.S.L.), in France they use French Sign Language (F.S.L.) and so on for different countries around the world. The structure of a signed sentence may be similar, but the actual signs will vary across cultures.

Sign language has developed over the centuries in communities where deaf people have had the chance to live and work together. It has evolved over time in the same way that spoken language has evolved. Like spoken languages each community has a sign vocabulary that is like a dialect and is specific to an area or region. So, signs for some words can be different in different parts of a country.  Again, this is similar to spoken language, for example in Australia we put on “togs” or “bathers” in Victoria, but “swimmers” up north.  We eat “cantaloupe” in Victoria, and “rockmelon” up north.  However, unlike speech, sign language does not follow English word order. A sentence in Auslan is not a direct translation of spoken language and deaf people tend not to use speech. Auslan has its own grammar which uses many visual strategies like gestures and facial expression. Often finger spelling is used (i.e. spelling which uses different handshapes to represent the letters of the alphabet). The Auslan dictionary is available as a source of signs.

Features:   Visual strategies – body language, facial expression

                    Non spoken word order

                    Unique grammar and sentence structure

                    Use of finger spelling

                    No (or little) speech

                    Use of Auslan signs and natural gesture

Signed English

It’s important to recognise that Signed English is not a language.  Signed English was created (by hearing people) as a way of trying to help deaf students to learn to read. Deaf children find reading difficult because books are written in English word order. Sign language has its own grammar which is quite different. It was thought that if deaf children could be taught to sign in English word order, it would be easier to learn speech and literacy. Often sign vocabularies were designed just for this purpose e.g. Paget Gorman Systematic Sign and other systems were adapted using many of the signs already found in deaf sign language. Neither have worked very effectively – partly because some members of the deaf community resented hearing people imposing a sign system on them just for teaching purposes and partly because signing is a visual language that does not make sense when limited to English word order.

Signed English uses speech and sign concurrently. It does not consider facial expression, body language or other visual strategies. All words are signed with grammatical markers and finger spelling being used to show the different parts speech or for words with no known sign. The Dictionary of Australasian Signs was produced as a resource book although now this is replaced by Auslan Signbank:

Features:     Grammar and sentence structure of spoken language

                    Use of speech and sign concurrently

                    Use of finger spelling and/or sign markers (for grammar)

                    Use of Australasian signs or auslan

                    No use of visual strategies

Key Word Sign (KWS)

Key Word Sign (KWS) borrows features from both Auslan and Signed English but is used with a different population. KWS is used with children and adults who can usually hear but who either cannot talk or whose speech is difficult to understand. Line drawings for the Auslan signs have been used in the books and resources developed by Key Word Sign Australia. This form of signing uses a key word approach. This means that the main or key words of the sentence are signed while the message is spoken normally. KWS also borrows features from Auslan. It incorporates many of the visual strategies such as body language, gesture and facial expression. This helps to reinforce the meaning of what is being communicated. It does not use fingerspelling or sign markers for grammatical features as Signed English does.

Features:     Use of speech and sign concurrently

                    Only sign the key words (but say the whole sentence)

                    No use of finger spelling

                    Visual strategies – body language, facial expression

                    Use of Australasian signs and natural gesture


Brownlie, E., Basterfield, C. and Bloomberg, K. (2006) Let’s play with sign Key Word Sign Australia. Special Education centre, University of Newcastle, NSW 2308. 

Johnston, T. (1998). Auslan Dictionary – A Dictionary of the Sign Language of the Australian Deaf Community (2nd Edition) North Rocks Press, North Rocks NSW 2151

Johnston, T. (1998). Signs of Australia CD ROM version of Auslan Dictionary

Ryan, A., Keesing, E., and Cowley, J. (2001). The Makaton Vocabulary – Auslan Edition Makaton Australia. Special Education centre, University of Newcastle, NSW 2308.  (CD ROM -2005)

Ryan, A. (2002). Key Signs – a Supplement to the Makaton Vocabulary Makaton Australia. Special Education centre, University of Newcastle, NSW 2308.  (Key Signs – a Supplementary Vocabulary CD ROM 2010)

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