Exploring lexical gaps in Australian Sign Language for the purposes of health communication


  • George Major Macquarie University
  • Jemina Napier Macquarie University
  • Lindsay Ferrara Macquarie University
  • Trevor Johnston Macquarie University




Australian Sign Language, Auslan, health communication, interpreter-mediated healthcare delivery, lexical gaps, signed language interpreting


Until recently no linguistic research had been carried out on Australian Sign Language (Auslan) with regard to its use in healthcare settings, although anecdotal information suggests that the health lexicon of Auslan is strikingly under-developed. This paper describes a study that examined health terminology from the perspective of deaf people. Based on a thematic analysis of focus group data, the paper outlines strategies that deaf Australians report using when communicating about health concepts that do not have established signs in Auslan. Participants described a variety of communicative strategies – including the use of fingerspelling, depiction and explanations – that they employ in order to circumnavigate lexical gaps when talking about health. The study provides a crucial starting point for a discussion of the implications of lexical gaps in Auslan and highlights issues of particular relevance for interpreters who take responsibility for brokering health terms and mediating health communication.

Author Biographies

George Major, Macquarie University

George Major is a Researcher in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Her recently submitted PhD thesis is an interactional sociolinguistics study that examines relational work within interpreted healthcare interaction. George qualified as a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter in 2004. Her research interests lie mainly in the area of sociolinguistics, and she has experience collecting and analysing interaction data in workplace settings, particularly in a variety of health settings.

Jemina Napier, Macquarie University

Jemina Napier is an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University and a Research Associate of the University of Free State in South Africa. She is a Chief Investigator on the Medical Signbank project. She has over 23 years experience as a signed language interpreter practitioner and over 16 years experience as an interpreter educator. Her major research interest is in the field of signed language interpreting, but her wider interests include effective translation and interpreting pedagogy, and discourse analysis.

Lindsay Ferrara, Macquarie University

Lindsay Ferrara recently completed her PhD at Macquarie University. In her research she investigated the use of depicting signs in Australian Sign Language and examined the integration of language and gesture in naturalistic discourse. Lindsay completed her Masters degree at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where she studied signed language linguistics. Her current research interests include depiction, syntax and the interaction between language and gesture.

Trevor Johnston, Macquarie University

Trevor Johnston is a Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University. He has researched Auslan since the early 1980s, concentrating on lexicography, grammatical description, bilingual deaf education, and corpus linguistics, both for research into sociolinguistic variation and for empirical language description. He is the author of several dictionaries of Auslan (in book, CD-ROM and internet formats), and created the Auslan Archive which is now being transformed through annotation into the Auslan Corpus. He is a Chief Investigator on the Medical Signbank project.



How to Cite

Major, G., Napier, J., Ferrara, L., & Johnston, T. (2013). Exploring lexical gaps in Australian Sign Language for the purposes of health communication. Communication and Medicine, 9(1), 37–47. https://doi.org/10.1558/cam.v9i1.37