The unspoken language

This is a repost from the article written by Sam L. Marcelo of Business World Online. Here is the original link.

EAVESDROPPING is despicable but I do it all the time. When I see deaf people “talking” on the train, I can’t help myself. I’m riveted by their conversation and my eyes follow their hands as they dance in space. Fingers animated by meaning slice, flick, and stab the air. Noses scrunch, eyebrows rise and fall, cheeks puff out, lips purse and wiggle about. Not a word is spoken but a lot is said.
Chances are, they’re communicating in Filipino Sign Language (FSL), a “unique visual language” that has its own grammar and syntax. FSL is not gesture or pantomime. FSL is not American Sign Language (ASL), although it cannot deny that it was influenced by ASL; neither is FSL the sign equivalent of spoken Tagalog or Filipino.

FSL is FSL and it is a defining part of the Filipino Deaf — big “D,” not small “d” — identity, which is why members were shocked when Department of Education (DepEd) undersecretary Yolanda Quijano endorsed Signed Exact English (SEE), a manually coded version of spoken English, for classroom use during a forum attended by public and private school teachers, and NGOs.

“It was like a bomb,” said George Lintag, secretary of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf, Inc. (PFD), who was present when Ms. Quijano made her controversial statement.

Mr. Lintag is a post-lingual Deaf person, which means he lost his hearing after he learned to speak. At the age of nine, his hearing gradually started to weaken and by the time he turned 15, his world was silent. The interview was conducted without the aid of an interpreter. BusinessWorld wrote its questions and comments down; he answered in a quiet voice. In answer to an observation that he spoke well, he shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know. I can’t hear myself.”

There are several degrees of hearing loss. For quick reference, a mildly deaf person cannot hear whispered conversations and has a hearing threshold of 20-40 decibels (dB); a moderately deaf person has difficulty following close-range conversations and has a hearing threshold of 40-60 dB; a person with severe hearing loss can only hear loud noises such as the racket made by a vacuum cleaner or lawn mower at close range, representing a hearing threshold of 60-90 dB; finally, a severely deaf person can hear only extremely loud noises — a chainsaw, for example — and feel the vibrations made by loud sounds.

The people in the final group have a hearing threshold of greater than 90 dB, a level that’s around 10 to 40 decibels lower than a live rock concert (it depends on which band is playing). Normal conversation is 60-70 dB; Col Hatchman of Dirty Skanks holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for “loudest drummer” when he hit a peak reading of 137.2 dB at a 2006 gig.

Filipinos with hearing loss account for 2% of the population, a conservative estimate. However, not all deaf Filipinos are members of the Filipino Deaf community, which defines itself as a cultural and linguistic minority fighting for the right to use FSL, the native sign language that it knows, understands, and identifies with the most.

In response to Ms. Quijano’s endorsement of SEE, PFD, a member of the World Federation of the Deaf and the national Deaf advocacy organization composed of 18 member Deaf organizations in 14 regions, drafted a resolution this August claiming “the fundamental human rights to language, culture, participation and self-determination for all Deaf Filipinos, in accordance with the Magna Carta for Persons with Disability, the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (1994), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

The PFD called on the DepEd to “halt the violation of the rights to language, culture, participation and self-determination of Deaf Filipinos; and institute, facilitate and promote all appropriate measures to guarantee the full enjoyment of these rights.”

“We are proud of our culture. We want to preserve our culture. And the most important part of our culture is our language, which is FSL,” said Mr. Lintag.

FSL is a true language

According to Dr. Liza B. Martinez, a hearing sign language linguist who is founder and director of Philippine Deaf Resource Center (PDRC), FSL is one of about a hundred natural sign languages recognized to be linguistically distinct from each other at all levels of linguistic structure (phonology, morphology, syntax and discourse).

FSL is not simply a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL), though it does borrow heavily from it. Ms. Martinez cites archival documents dating back to the 16th-17th century as critical evidence that sign language existed in the Philippines before American colonization.

Separate accounts written by Jesuit priests Gregorio Lopez and Pedro Chirino describe mutes who used signs to communicate.

An Introduction to Filipino Sign Language, a multivolume series published in 2004 by PDRC and PFD, answers many of the questions a hearing person might have about a visual language.

Sign languages are as different from each other as spoken ones; and only those who know sign languages from the same branch or family will be able to understand each other right off the bat. It’s easy to “get” FSL if you know ASL, for example, because they’re related though history and development. Taiwanese Sign Language, meanwhile, uses handshapes that are alien to FSL: the raised middle finger in the sign for “brother” and the folded pinky in the sign for “airplane,” among others.

As in ASL, each sign in FSL has five components. Handshape, which was already mentioned, is one of them. The other four are palm orientation, location, movement, and nonmanual signals. Change any one of these five components and the meaning of the sign changes as well.

Nuances such as tone, sarcasm, or irony are conveyed through nonmanual signals such as facial expressions and body movements.

“Shouting” entails taking up a larger area of signing space, an imaginary three-dimensional region in front of the user; whispering, a smaller area. (If the need for privacy is great, you can always sign underneath your shirt so that your conversation is hidden from prying eyes.) Eloquence, just the same as any language, is demonstrated by the wide use of vocabulary and complex sentence structure.

Hands can move rapidly or slowly, gracefully or abruptly. How you sign tells a lot about who you are: your age, educational attainment, even your gender. Just as there is “swardspeak” in spoken language, there is also gay FSL (you’ll know it when you see it; gay signs have more…. pizzazz.)

“As in any language, there is the whole range of human diversity in terms of signing styles. Each individual has his or her own ‘dialect,’” said Ms. Martinez. “Particular vocabularies are distinct for certain age groups and social classes. Like other living languages, new vocabularies emerge, change, and disappear.”

Members of the Filipino Deaf community have repeatedly said that they would rather be taught in FSL. The PFD’s resolution is only the latest and, as mentioned, their request is backed by several local and international declarations. The DepEd, in the 1980s, prescribed that local sign language — “Pilipino Sign Language” — be used as the language of instruction for the hearing impaired.

The Formal Resolution adopted by the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Helsinki, Finland in 1987 said that “the distinct national sign languages of indigenous deaf populations should officially be recognized as their natural language of right for direct communication” and that “teachers of the deaf learn and use the accepted indigenous sign language as the primary language of instruction.”

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, adopted by 92 governments (the Philippines included) and 25 international organizations in 1994 read, in part: “Educational policies should take full account of individual differences and situations.

The importance of sign language as the medium of communication among the deaf, for example, should be recognized and provision to ensure that all deaf persons have access to education in their national sign language.”

In 2007, the Philippines became one 82 signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 24 of the Convention states that signatories shall facilitate “the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community.”

Why then, Ms. Quijano’s endorsement of Signed Exact English? Why then, the use of SEE in the Miriam College — Southeast Asian Institute for the Deaf (MC-SAID)? Why then, the use of Signed English (a system that is simpler than SEE) in the Philippine School for the Deaf (PSD)?

Visual codes, reading, and writing

“We are not here to teach signs. We are here to teach concepts,” said Yolanda Capulong, principal of PSD, which offers three levels of schooling (pre-elementary, elementary, and secondary). “Our students are here to learn the parts of the body and the parts of the plant. They are here to learn to read and write.”

The language of instruction in PSD is English, complemented by Signed English, a “system of manual communication” that “translates” spoken English into signs. Signed English is one of several “visual codes” for representing spoken English.

The history of PSD goes back more than a hundred years. It was established in 1907 as the School for the Deaf and the Blind by Delia Delight Rice of Columbus, Ohio. In 1963, the School split into two entities: PSD and the Philippine School for the Blind. Today, it has 603 students, ranging from the mildly deaf to the severely deaf. PSD also accepts children with other disabilities and special needs, such as autism and cerebral palsy.

Since PSD is a national school, the medium of instruction has always been a concern. “We’re trying to serve a very diverse population with different needs,” said Ms. Capulong. “There are three big issues in the education of the deaf: where shall we teach deaf children, how shall we teach deaf children, and what shall we teach deaf children?” FSL relates to the second issue.

PSD’s goal is to “mainstream” its deaf students. In the education setting, this means helping them join regular classes based on their skills and intellectual abilities. In another sense, “mainstreaming” refers to becoming part of the larger, hearing society. To this end, PSD adheres to the Total Communication Philosophy, which means that it uses a combination of communication modes in its classes.

Where other schools are either purely oral (meaning students must lip read and undergo auditory training so that they can speak) or purely manual, PSD believes in Simultaneous Communication — signing and speaking at the same time.

“Concepts cannot be taught without a common language,” said Ms. Capulong. “FSL is gestural like any sign language. How can you convert a gestural language into a written language?,” she asked.

The PSD principal made it clear that she has no problem with FSL. “It’s okay; it’s fine,” she said. “However, inside a classroom, you have to use a system. You have to standardize things, including the manifestation of a language.” Using Signed English, she continued, will help students grasp the syntax of English, which, in turn, will help them read and write.

Sign what you say

Parents who were not satisfied with the education offered at PSD established the Miriam College – Southeast Asian Institute for the Deaf (MC-SAID), which teaches pre-school to secondary levels, in 1974. It was a forerunner in adopting the Total Communication Philosophy. But unlike PSD, MC-SAID used and still uses Signed Exact English, an even more precise visual code for spoken English than Signed English.

Every morpheme in spoken English has an equivalent sign in SEE: verbs must be conjugated, meaning there are appropriate gestures that tell you whether a verb is in the progressive form (“-ing”) or the past tense (“-ed”); articles and prepositions are not skipped, neither are affixes. Basically, everything that is said is exactly signed (hence the name).

“The advantages of SEE are many. I’ve seen how the use of this sign system has helped our graduates,” said Carol Ui, MC-SAID principal.

“An educator’s concern is literacy and I believe that this is what SEE can give to our deaf students.” She continued that the use of SEE does not exclude FSL. “They can both be functional and useful for any deaf child.”

For Ms. Ui, MC-SAID’s graduates are the best arguments for using SEE. There’s Jemima Ming Go, who graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Fine Arts last year. As a matter of fact, many Deaf leaders now advocating for the use of FSL were products of SEE.

“I think that one of the reasons they can engage intellectually in these conversations and discussions about FSL and SEE is that they have command over both languages [FSL and SEE],” said Ms. Ui. “That they favor FSL over SEE is not really an issue with me. It makes me proud as a teacher to see them engaged. Not any deaf person can do [what they’re doing].”

The MC-SAID principal continued that seeing how well the system has worked for them just bolsters the case for SEE. “When we’re talking about classroom situation, I really believe that we should use SEE,” she said, adding that literacy is reading and writing, and, therefore, knowing the rules of English (which is the closest the world has to a lingua franca). “But again, that doesn’t mean that FSL cannot be used in other contexts.”

A learner-centered environment

Raphael “Raphy” Domingo is a Deaf leader who works as coordinator of Education Access for the Deaf at the De La Salle College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB)-Center for Education Access and Development (CEAD). He was president of the PFD from 1999-2003 and a major contributor to An Introduction to Filipino Sign Language. Mr. Domingo, who lost his hearing pre-lingually, is bilingual, being fluent in FSL and English. DLS-CSB uses FSL in its School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies (SDEAS), which has a Multimedia Arts track and a Business Entrepreneurship track. There are more Deaf teachers in the school than hearing teachers.

“FSL is our language,” Mr. Domingo said through an interpreter. “It is the natural language of the Filipino Deaf community. The deaf, in general, use their eyes to understand the world.”

(Later on in the interview, Mr. Domingo requested that BusinessWorld use “Mr. Domingo said” in this article instead of “Mr. Domingo said through an interpreter.” “This is my voice, these are my thoughts and not the interpreter’s,” he said, adding that the phrase “through an interpreter” could be used once as a compromise.)

To illustrate how FSL is different from SEE, he used the question “What is your name?” as an example. SEE entails signing each word — “what,” “is,” “your,” and “name” — plus the question mark at the end of the interrogative sentence. In FSL, the sign for “name” and a puzzled facial expression suffices.

Mr. Domingo stressed that it’s not a shortcut but a visual concept.

“Before learning English, Tagalog, or whatever spoken language, the Deaf should first learn their own language, which is FSL,” he said. “The problem is that teachers keep using ‘hearing’ methods to teach us.

They bombard the Deaf with so many written words and we just copy, copy, copy without understanding anything. Communication is one way and there’s no feedback. It has to be more visual.”

Theresa Christine “Techie” Benitez-dela Torre, director of CEAD and dean of SDEAS from 2002-2009, said that DLS-CSB uses FSL because it is “learner-centered.”

“You have to see it from the view of the students. You have to understand it from a sociocultural perspective,” she said. “Deaf people cannot hear, yes, but that does not define their personhood. Their identity is not their hearing ability. They have their own unique experiences.”

Imagine a deaf infant born in a hearing world. “From day one, this baby is isolated and cut off. There is a barrier — a barrier that is not necessarily a product of his deafness but a product of his hearing environment, which has always addressed only the needs of hearing people,” said Ms. Benitez-dela Torre. “If we understand the context of the deaf, then we can adjust the environment so that they can access the same things hearing people have access to.”

One way of “adjusting the environment” is using FSL, a visual and kinesthetic language that is the natural language of the Deaf.

“Oral-based languages are learned in an auditory manner. Hearing and post-lingual deaf people already have the foundations they need in their brain to understand the rules,” said the CEAD director. “The same is not true for the pre-lingual deaf.”

It is better for a deaf child to learn FSL, she continued, and use it as a bridge to a second, oral-based language such as English. “It should not be the other way around,” Ms. Benitez-dela Torre said. “It’s difficult when you force an oral-based reality on those who are deaf. All we want is for them to have choices and the power to make them.

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