THREE STORIES today: Halloween, FSL and… FSL.
Friends suggested I do a column on how Halloween has been adopted in the Philippines but it is a topic that deserves only a few words: Why, oh, why, must we Filipinos be duped again, adopting a commercially driven event lock, stock and barrel?
Halloween is an American invention but it’s China that rakes in the profits from its globalization, selling costumes, props, even some of the treats. It’s a dilemma for me, with Halloween gimmickry running counter to so many things I’ve been teaching my kids: avoiding candies, not accepting treats offered by strangers, and worst of all, not blindly imitating other cultures. I wouldn’t mind as much if we at least had some tikbalang and kapre and duwende but no, all we see and hear are witches and goblins and zombies.
That’s that about Halloween. Now to FSL and FSL. Two of my former students, Rej Cruz and Perpi Tiongson, asked if I could publicize the advocacy efforts of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf and the Philippine Deaf Resource Center for the passage of House Bill No. 6079, which declares Filipino Sign Language (FSL) as the national sign language. Specifically, Rej texted to say there would be a march to Congress on Monday, Nov. 5 (meeting point: Philcoa 8:30 a.m.), to rally support.
Sure, I texted back, I’ll make an announcement in my column. But something else happened that convinced me to do an entire column on FSL, which, it turns out, has two meanings in the Philippines.
Let’s deal first with FSL as Filipino Sign Language. It seems commonsensical that FSL should be the national sign language, right? But no, the proposed bill is facing strong opposition from an ASL (American Sign Language) camp arguing for the retention of the status quo, which privileges ASL over FSL. This includes the Department of Education requiring the teaching of Signing Exact English (SEE) in schools for the deaf.
It’s amazing how our debates and intramurals over language in the hearing world find parallels in “bingi culture” (the thesis topic of Rej Cruz). As with the “English-only” proposals of some of our schools, the ASL lobby says our deaf need to know ASL to survive in the world. But that presumes the rest of the world uses English and ASL, which just isn’t true.
The term FSL came about only in the 1990s but the deaf in the Philippines have been using their own signing for centuries. A research paper by Rafaelito Abat and Liza Martinez cites historical writings from the Spaniards about signing among the indio, including this moving account from the Jesuit Gregorio Lopez in 1605 about a deaf preacher ”…with his hand body moves, persuades, pleases, amplifies, argues, exclaims and vociferates… I have seen with great astonishment how he talks without noise but not without light, transmitting light to the soul through the eyes of the body.”
ASL was introduced during the US colonial occupation, but local sign language continued to develop, influenced to some extent by ASL but continuing to grow with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. For example, FSL has equivalents for “sayang,” “bahala ka,” “kuripot,” floods coming into the house, and many more concepts and terms specific to the Philippines. FSL also has specific ways of gestures and eye gaze and other aspects of paralanguage (body language).
The English-only policy for hearing and nonhearing education betrays our cultural disorientation. The messages we send out are clear: Who cares if Filipinos can’t speak Filipino, or if the Filipino deaf can’t use FSL? It’s only Filipino.
This is taking me to the second meaning of FSL, which I caught when I had to pick up one of my daughters from her dance lessons. Her school had just moved the lessons to a larger center offering many other child-learning activities, and I hadn’t really noticed the signs until that night, one of which stood out: “Filipino as a Second Language.”
It didn’t say FSL but that abbreviation would have fit as well. Thousands of Filipinos are already earning a living with ESL, teaching English as a second language mainly to Koreans (and, in the past, to Vietnamese refugees).
For many Filipinos, English is indeed a first language and Filipino a second language, sometimes even a third (after English and a local language like Cebuano or Ilokano). The sad part is that we don’t realize how strange this can be. All our neighboring countries appreciate English, but it’s unthinkable that Chinese or Japanese or Thai or Bahasa Indonesia would be taught as a second language.
Yet, I’ve actually heard complaints from local parents of children in private schools, asking why Filipino is taught now in preschool and kindergarten, with worries that the Filipino will “corrupt” or delay the acquisition of English. I’ve held my tongue but gently reminded a parent, who is a close friend, that we live in the Philippines.
It’s not easy getting upper- and middle-class Filipino kids to learn Filipino because they’re bombarded with English all the time, from the conversations of relatives and friends, to children’s books, DVDs and YouTube videos, and apps for games and education for tablets and smartphones.
I have to keep reiterating I have nothing against English. What I do want to see is greater appreciation of Filipino as our national language, and exposure to more foreign languages other than English. I have another story to make my point. The other night while driving, I suddenly heard a woman’s voice calling out the numbers “un, deux, trois, quatre…” and asked my kids where that was coming from. Turned out they had downloaded an app called Halloween Games (sigh), which include one for connecting dots with numbers, with a voice counting out loud until the whole round is completed, at which point a Halloween creature appears. The kids had discovered the settings that gave a choice in language, and were trying French. I was thrilled, since they’d already picked up “uno, dos, tres” from the cartoon character Dora and Chinese numbers from school and the cartoon “Ni Hao Kai Lan.” This Halloween game allows all kinds of European languages plus Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi. I asked if the settings offer Filipino, and they answered, sadly, “Wala!” I should contact the app developer and remind them Cebuano is the 18th most widely spoken language in the world and Tagalog is the 20th.
After all’s said and signed, it boils down to this: Sure, we want Filipinos to be able to communicate with the world, but let’s not forget, foremost, Filipinos need to communicate with Filipinos. When I bring my kids to a wet market, or to urban poor communities, they charm their way into the hearts of everyone they meet because people hear them speaking fluently in both English (wow, you’re so magaling in English) and Filipino (uy, mas magaling pa sa Pilipino!).
Now will some whiz kid do more apps using Filipino, maybe a connect-the-dots game using the aswang and nuno sa punso, with the numbers called out in Philippine languages?
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