The acquisition of New Zealand Sign Language as a second language for students in an interpreting programme: the learners’ perspective
This research study presents an investigation of interpreter trainees acquiring New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) as a second language (L2) outside their formal classroom learning. This study was motivated firstly by a concern that a considerable reduction in learner and lecturer contact hours within an NZSL interpreting programme would compromise graduate NZSL competency, necessitating a compensatory approach predominantly in the context of the Deaf community. Secondly, the study attempts to address a marked gap in research related to L2 sign language learning from a socio-cultural perspective. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in a bilingual context (NZSL and English) in order to gain the ‘inside’ perspectives of six NZSL learners who had just completed a two-year Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting. The interviews sought to uncover the informal NZSL language learning opportunities used by the participants, especially within the social context of the Deaf community, and the individual learner strategies utilised by ‘good learners’ of NZSL. Interview data were transcribed and were analysed by employing qualitative methods. Coding of the data revealed a number of categories which were subsequently examined for salient themes relating to the research questions. The main findings of the study revolved around the significance of L2 learner access to social and material resources, especially within the Deaf socio-cultural context. Of particular significance was the enhancement of learner motivation and confidence as was the frequency and depth of interaction with Deaf people and degree of mediated NZSL learning from NZSL mentors. Of key importance were the social relationships and networks developed with L1 users, which facilitated access to an array of NZSL learning opportunities. Material language learning resources, such as NZSL video samples and equipment were also useful, when interaction with Deaf people was not possible due to heavy study demands, especially in the second year of the programme. Learner involvement in the Deaf community, particularly within Deaf social networks, resulted in significantly improved linguistic, pragmatic and socio-cultural competency. The findings of the study raise two main implications. Firstly, the study highlights the need for NZSL interpreting curriculum enrichment and the resourcing of the programme to foster learner autonomy. Secondly, to date there has been little research on adult L2 sign language learning outside the classroom context and the study may stimulate further studies of the acquisition of sign language as a second language. The study may also be of benefit to autonomous L2 sign language learners and stakeholders in sign language interpreting education around the world.