The patrimony of the Filipino deaf

/ 10:12 PM November 02, 2012

PAMELA, a former scholar of the Catholic Ministry to Deaf People Inc., dropped by the office last summer to update us on her life working as a teacher with the deaf community in Calbayog, Samar.  She relayed to us something she had observed in the sign language of the deaf community there: Some signs are different from those used by the deaf in Manila.

She told us that, for example, to sign “black,” she had to run her pointed index finger up and down one side of her hair.  To sign “white,” she had to use the same finger, point it at her teeth, and move it from one side to the other along the stretch of her slightly open mouth.  If you think about this for a moment, you would understand why.


I asked Pamela: “What if the teeth of the sign users were yellow?”  The deaf who were with us broke into laughter, signed “crazy,” and pointed at me.

The signs of the Calbayog deaf for “black” and “white” may well be lost when the bill on establishing FSL (Filipino Sign Language) as the national language of deaf Filipinos is passed in Congress.  That is, if it is passed without provisions protecting what may well be other sign languages indigenous to deaf communities outside of Manila.  That is, if the bill becomes a law at all.


House Bill No. 6079, or the FSL Act, has yet to move from the committee on social services since May.  It has remained a party-list representative’s good intent, along with two other bills needed by the deaf that have remained good intents.

The two other bills, HB 4121 and HB 4631, are already in the best of intents in the committees on public information and on justice, and have been there since the first quarter of 2011. HB 4121 seeks to facilitate the deaf’s access to television news through captioning or sign-interpreting. The other bill aims to ensure that our institutions of justice are accessible to the deaf.

But, the deaf seem to have to wait again because the game that is the May 2013 elections has already begun and our lawmakers’ focus may already have shifted from those in the margins to those with more votes.

If HB 6079 is passed in Congress without the provision protecting the other indigenous sign languages in the Philippines, the FSL signs for “black” and “white” may edge out those used by the Calbayog deaf along with many more signs of other deaf communities outside Manila.

In FSL, one signs “black” from the L formed by one’s stretched thumb and index finger; using the tip of the thumb, one draws a line across the stretch of the forehead from the side opposite the used hand to the other.  To sign “white,” one places one’s hand with stretched fingers on the chest, pulls it from there and ends with the fingers bent like a cat’s paw about to attack.

The signs for the colors in FSL are originally from ASL (American Sign Language).  ASL has deeply influenced FSL because the first organized and formal teachers of the Filipino deaf were Americans and they brought with them the language used by deaf Americans.

According to Dr. Liza B. Martinez, the only sign linguistics expert working in the Philippines now, FSL was 63 to 79 percent related to ASL as of 2003.  She compared it to an earlier compilation of signs by a Cebuano deaf teacher in 1985 and found that then, FSL was only 21 to 44 percent related to ASL.


If we agree with the assumption of Martinez that the compiled Cebuano signs represented the Manila-centric FSL, then the degeneration of FSL has taken on a rather alarming rate.  Almost 2.5 percent of FSL words, computing from the above figures, are replaced by ASL words every year.

It is perhaps due to this degeneration that Martinez has uncompromisingly advocated FSL’s recognition.  ASL words have aggressively chomped on our indigenous sign languages because almost all of our local schools for the deaf have been using media of instruction that, like the artificial sign system SEE (Sign Exact English), have ASL as base language.

Our schools for the deaf, especially our public schools, use SEE.  Although SEE uses ASL as basis for most of its words, it follows the grammatical structure of the spoken English language.

If you are a deaf person, perceiving SEE would be like listening to the stereotyped immigrant Chinese speaking in Tagalog. But, it could be tedious to the deaf for SEE follows the rules of the spoken English language, some of which are superfluous to natural sign languages.

SEE could be fatal to the deaf’s learning for they would be learning an artificial sign not used outside the classroom and without first having a good grasp of a first natural sign language, a mother tongue.  They could also easily mistake, as many of their teachers still do, sign languages as merely hand renditions of the spoken ones.

Natural sign languages like FSL and ASL have neither spoken nor written equivalents.  For their grammatical structures, they manipulate mostly the upper-body space and time.  They use not only the hands, like SEE, but also the body’s positions and facial expressions.  Also, unlike SEE, these visual-manual languages have emerged and evolved naturally from deaf communities.

But, according to 20 of the 21 teachers in 12 Manila public schools whom we surveyed recently, SEE has been an effective medium of instruction for the deaf in primary and secondary schools.

We are, thus, confronted with these questions during this year’s celebration of the Deaf Awareness Week (Nov. 10-16):  How do we protect the deaf community’s patrimony in the indigenous sign languages that they have without risking the education of their young?  How should we unite them under one language without losing their diversity?

Roberto S. Salva ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Catholic Ministry to Deaf People Inc.

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TAGS: column, education, Roberto S. Salva, sign language
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