Love at first sign

By Francesca Emms
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #72
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Primary school teacher Miriam Gaynor can communicate in 3D.

Miriam Gaynor describes herself as a homebody. She likes to cook and sew (she’s working on a quilt) and she loves reading. But she’s equally happy to get out and about. She’ll often be spotted walking the local tracks, visiting local cafés with friends, or attending weekly agility classes with her dog, Lulu. The “super snoozy” golden retriever loves meeting people “and plays fetch like a champ”. Lulu often joins Miriam for Friday beers at Parrot Dog, blustery walks along the South Coast, or a spot of gardening – “There are times where she sees me digging in the garden and thinks it looks fun, so joins in. But she’s not really aware of the purpose of gardening – she’s been known to fall asleep on the flowers I’ve just planted.” When they’re home Lulu is Miriam’s shadow, “in a good way. She’s not needy or demanding, but just wants to be where I am. Dad and I spent so much time building fences on my property for her, but I don’t even need them as she never runs away.”

Sometimes Miriam uses sign language to communicate with Lulu. In fact she sometimes finds herself using sign without realising, “generally if I am trying to communicate with someone through a window, or if I can’t find the right word in English for what I need to say.”

About six years ago Miriam had two students in her primary school class who used New Zealand Sign Language as their main form of communication, so she learned to sign as quickly as possible. “The drive to master new phrases and increase my fluency was largely influenced by the challenge of needing to use it to communicate daily on a range of topics, but also as a way to maintain authentic relationships with the students in my care.” She attended NZSL classes, got online, and the rest she had to pick up “on the job”. Eventually the whole class became very competent at communicating in sign, “even to the point where I had an email from some confused parents requesting NZSL classes for the whole community as their kids kept signing secretly at the dinner table.”

Miriam fell in love with the language. “I was constantly delighted by the new signs I was learning. Also, it’s unique as a language because it’s 3D! As you sign, you create an entire scene, rather than just a linear sentence – it’s like painting with language.” Miriam says there are many benefits to learning sign. It helps to normalise the language in society, and she says dreaming in sign is pretty cool. “There is a lot of research into the benefits of teaching young children to sign from an early age. My goddaughter regularly requests, via sign, that she would like me to get her some cake.”

Now that she doesn’t need to sign daily, the challenge for Miriam is not to get rusty. “Often when I’m listening to the radio or a podcast, I try to sign what they are saying as a way of practising, but it doesn’t come close to having a proper conversation.” She’d love to have more people to practise with. “NZSL is such a useful and beautiful language and it would be wonderful to see more Kiwi signers.”


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