Filipino Sign Language 101

This a re-post from an article which appeared last December 1. It clearly explains what Filipino Sign Language is all about courtesy of our FSL Guru, Dr. Liza Martinez. Enjoy!!!

What are sign languages?

Common misconceptions:

Signing is universal.

Signing is gesture or only pantomime.

Sign languages are based on spoken languages.

Sign languages have been demonstrated to be true languages at par with spoken languages.  Spoken languages are based on classes of sound, while sign languages are built from visual units. There are over a hundred sign languages currently recognized around the world.

The fundamental unit of structure is the Handshape, along with the other parameters of Location, Movement, Palm Orientation and Nonmanual signal. These are further organized into units which carry meaning, and then, sentences and discourse.

Sign languages have no written systems and are governed by purely visually motivated grammatical devices found in the Nonmanual signals of the face and body.

How do sign languages differ from sign systems?

Sign languages arise and grow naturally across time, within communities of persons with hearing loss. A sign language is not intrinsic to children with hearing loss but is among the set of learned behaviors within the community that is shared, nurtured and passed on.

Sign languages possess their own structure distinct from spoken and written languages.

Sign systems, on the other hand, are considered artificial since they did not arise spontaneously but were purposively created as educational tools in the development of literacy.  Artificial sign systems follow the structure and grammar of spoken and written languages.

What is Filipino Sign Language (FSL)?

Common misconceptions about Filipino Sign Language:

It is based on Filipino.

It is based on English.

It is the “same” as American Sign Language.

Like other legitimate visual languages, FSL has a hierarchy of linguistic structure based on a manual signal supplemented by additional linguistic information from Nonmanual signals of the face and body. It is the ordered and rule-governed visual communication which has arisen naturally and embodies the cultural identity of the Filipino community of signers.

It shows internal structure distinct from spoken and written languages, and other visual languages, and possesses productive processes, enabling it to respond to numerous current and emerging communication needs.

It reflects rich regional diversity in its vocabulary and bears a historical imprint of language change over time since the early beginnings of manual communication in the 16th century in Leyte.

From the lexicostatistical analysis of field data by the Philippine Federation of the Deaf (PFD), possible varieties have so far been proposed: an Eastern Visayas group (Leyte variety) and a Southern Luzon group (Southern Tagalog, Bicol and Palawan varieties).

FSL bears the historical imprint of heavy language pressure from contact with American Sign Language since the start of the century, as well as with Manually Coded English since the 1970s.

In 2004, sign linguist Liza Martinez called attention to the massive and abrupt change of the core vocabulary of FSL, which has resulted from this linguistic pressure. The PFD historical analysis in 2007 used the lexicostatistical approach and verified vocabulary elements of indigenous as well as foreign origin.

Distinguished sign linguist James Woodward has been at the forefront of pioneering research to protect endangered indigenous sign languages (including FSL) and stem the strong tide of influence from foreign sign languages and sign systems.

Who are the Filipino deaf?

These are Filipinos who have hearing loss, including those who lost their hearing early or late in life (late-deafened adults, senior citizens), the hard of hearing, those with other impairments such as the deafblind, those who communicate orally, unschooled deaf, LGBT deaf, deaf indigenous peoples and so on.

Who are  the Filipino Deaf?

They are   deaf Filipinos who use, share, nurture and promote common values (including their visual language and cultural identity) as a claim for human rights and self-determination.

How are FSL and American Sign Language related?

FSL belongs to the branch of visual languages influenced by American Sign Language together with, for example, Thai Sign Language and Kenyan Sign Language. However, the structure of FSL has changed significantly enough for it to be considered a distinct language from American Sign Language.

There is substantial evidence of widespread FSL changes in the following:

Overall form, internal structure (particularly on the inventory of handshapes and accompanying phonological processes)

Sign formation or morphological processes (such as affixation, compounding, numeral incorporation, lexicalization of finger spelling, inflections and others)

Classifier predication, grammatical features and transformational rules, enabling it to generate infinite forms of surface structure from patterns of deep structure

What is the legal basis for House Bill No. 6079?

The bill is known as “An Act Declaring Filipino Sign Language as the National Sign Language of the Filipino Deaf and the Official Language of Government in All Transactions Involving the Deaf, and Mandating Its Use in Schools, Broadcast Media and Workplaces.”

The State is duty-bound internationally and domestically to legislate HB 6079 or other laws written in the same spirit.  International commitments include its ratification of UN core treaties, e.g. the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the signing by the Philippines of the 1994 Salamanca Statement on Special Needs Education.

Department of Education (DepEd) policies include the 1997 specific guidelines on the use of FSL  as the medium of instruction for students with hearing impairment. Recent or proposed DepEd policies, such as those for Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education, the K-12 bill and the Early Years Act, already incorporate principles of full accessibility, inclusion and participation of children with disabilities.

Is this legal recognition of a national sign language taking place  only in the Philippines?

No. Forty-four countries are reported to have various levels of formal recognition for their sign languages, from constitutional status to specific legislation, polices or guidelines.

Sign language recognition continues to be an area of active lobbying with the government for Deaf communities worldwide, which invoke their right to language and communication in all aspects of their lives.

How much research has been done on FSL?

Rosalinda Macaraig Ricasa, the first Filipino hearing sign-language linguist who trained at the renowned Deaf institution, Gallaudet University (Washington), first presented in the late 1980s the observation of a possibly unique sign language in the Philippines, distinct from American Sign Language.

In 1990, Liza Martinez, the second Filipino hearing sign-language linguist who trained at the same Deaf university, conducted the first linguistic inquiry in the country. Since that time, over 80 studies on the structure and use of FSL have been undertaken and published or presented in local and international forums.

These span the fields of sign language linguistics, history, Philippine studies, literature and culture, lexicography and corpus, sign language interpreting, translation studies, language policy, education, early childhood development, human rights and machine intelligence/sign language recognition.

The Philippine Federation of the Deaf was the lead for the National Sign Language Committee, which produced the Status Report on the Use of Sign Language in the Philippines (with principal support from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association through the Laurent Clerc Cultural Fund) and the Practical Dictionaries Project, a four-country study with Vietnam, Cambodia and Hong Kong through the support of  Nippon Foundation.

Trainers for the latter project were Dr. James Woodward,

Dr. Yutaka Osugi (a Deaf sign linguist from Japan) and

Dr. Liza Martinez.

How are deaf children taught in public schools?

The National Sign Language Committee collected and evaluated videotape samples of over 150 hearing teachers in nine regions. The data show typically Sign Supported Speech or Simultaneous Communication (i.e., speaking and signing at the same time). The most frequent use of the spoken language is English, mixed with either Filipino or Cebuano.

Will HB 6079 hinder the development of literacy?

No. Section 4 (1) of the bill states that the reading and writing of Filipino, other Philippine languages and English shall still also be taught.  For a bilingual-bicultual goal in Deaf education, the first language (L1) is a fully accessible visual language (i.e., FSL), and the second language (L2) is a written language.

Shall the legal recognition of FSL as the national sign language conflict with individual autonomy?

No. A fundamental principle of the UNCRPD is individual autonomy, including the freedom to make one’s own choices (Article 3.a).

On education, Article 24.3 emphasizes that “States Parties shall enable persons with disabilities to learn life and social development skills to facilitate their full and equal participation in education and as members of the community. To this end, States Parties shall take appropriate measures, including:

(b) Facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community;

(c) Ensuring that the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf or deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual, and in environments which maximize academic and social development.”

Part (b) is a clear directive to facilitate and promote the linguistic identity of the community (i.e., FSL).  Notable is the use of the word “including” in the first paragraph (meaning, it is not exclusive) for the directive to promote this linguistic identity.

Part (c) instructs the State to make sure that schools, in pursuit of their goals and mandates, offer education that is appropriate and maximizes academic and social development.  This appears to give schools latitude in the choice and delivery through the use of various languages,  modes and means.  However, these must satisfy the requirements for fully inclusive education and maximum development.

Article 21.b directs the State to guard the freedom of expression and access to information of persons with disabilities of all forms of communication “of their choice,” while also recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages (21.e).

The most critical point here is State responsibility.  The party to the convention is the Philippine state and not any stakeholder. The State must, therefore, clearly demonstrate that it is carrying out its duty to facilitate and promote the linguistic and cultural identity of the community (Articles 21.b, e; 24.3.b, 30.4) and provide full accessibility through sign language interpretation (Article 9.2.e). Articles 21.b and 24.3.c in no way diminish State commitment to clearly promote and protect sign language and deaf culture.

What will happen if HB 6079 does not become a law?

State responsibility remains clear and does not change. It shall still need to demonstrate how it is implementing Articles 21.b, e,  24.3.b,  30.4 and 9.2.e of the UNCRPD. It shall also be accountable for the nearly two decades of neglect of its commitment to the 1994 Salamanca Statement to ensure access through a national sign language.

Existing policies of the DepEd and the judiciary relating to sign language and accessibility must still be fully implemented according to the principles and obligations of the UNCRPD.

Will the mandatory use of FSL be a barrier to unschooled deaf Filipinos?

No.  Because of its fully visual nature, FSL is the next most efficient and effective interface in communication even with a deaf person who has been isolated and is unable to use the typical sign communication of the community.  Artificial sign systems, which are sound- and alphabet-/spelling-based, shall be incomprehensible to such deaf persons.

(Dr. Liza Martinez is founder and director of the Philippine Deaf Resource Center, a member of the Philippine Coalition on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She has been actively involved in structural and sociolinguistics research on FSL for the past 22 years.)



What Filipino Sign Language is NOT… a short video explanation

With the recent fuzz about Filipino Sign Language and the debate whether to support House Bill 6079 (Filipino Sign Language Act of 2012) or not, let us first have an open mind, understand what this language is and how it will empower the Filipino Deaf. We hearing people have been dominating deaf education since 1907. It’s high time that we let the Filipino Deaf people decide for themselves on what language to use in teaching them.

Here is a short video explaining what FSL is NOT. Peace! 🙂

Filipino Sign Language Bill, a must for the Filipino Deaf

MCCID representatives pose together with Cong. Antonio Tinio
From Left: Blog owner, Omar Jolas Lazaro, Congressman Tinio and Regina Grace Buenaventura

This week, I received an email from President Rey Alfred Lee of Philippine Federation of the Deaf asking for a more aggressive campaign on the passage of the proposed House Bill 6079 or the “Filipino Sign Language Act of 2012″. The bill was authored by Congressman Antonio Tinio of Alliance of Concerned Teachers Party List. They invited MCCID College to participate in the media briefing last September 10.

FSL Advocates pose behind the Congress Hall
FSL Advocates pose behind the Congress Hall

According to Pres. Rey, “declaring Filipino Sign Language as the national sign language of the Republic of the Philippines, to be used as the medium of official communication in all transactions involving the Deaf which includes:

  1. Access to education –  Medium of instruction and curriculum, Early childhood care (pre-school), Hiring Deaf teachers, FSL training for hearing teachers and Sign language evaluation
  2. Access to justice – Judiciary, Department of Justice and Local government justice system
  3. Access to workplaces
  4. Access to public health facilities and services
  5. Access to broadcast media

Pushing the Filipino Sign Language

This is a repost from the Manila Bulletin article written by Angelo Garcia. Enjoy! 🙂

English: Filipino Sign Language Font
English: Filipino Sign Language Font (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MANILA, Philippines — As the country celebrates Buwan ng Wika this month, a sector of society that has been lobbying for the recognition of the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) is reiterating its call.

The Filipino deaf community is currently supporting lawmakers, through the help of Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) Party List representative Antonio Tinio and Rep. Teddy Casiño, in passing several relevant House bills to benefit their stakeholders.

Among them is House Bill (HB) 6079 which pushes for the declaration of FSL as the national sign language of the Filipino deaf.

HB 4121, on the other hand, pushes for the use of sign language interpretation inset in television news programs, while HB 4631 is a bill that would give access to sign language interpreters in Philippine courts.

As these Bills gain traction, leaders of the Filipino deaf community are optimistic about the progress they are making.

“Yes, we are very optimistic. The progress has beenvery tremendous especially this year. The same with FSL, we want the same mother tongue-based instruction in education. There’s a lot of research and a lot of work to be done. What’s important is we have strong support, we have a strong advocacy. We want to emphasize that the deaf people also need the help of the hearing community in this advocacy,” shares Raphael Domingo, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB) Center for Education Access and Development (CEAD), Education Access for the Deaf coordinator.


In 1907, the American Sign Language (ASL) was introduced to the Filipino deaf community through the School for the Deaf and Blind, now known as the Philippine School for the Deaf. ASL has since influenced FSL, the Filipino sign language.

“FSL is a unique language. It has its own grammar, structure, syntax, which is different from the spoken language. It’s also the mark of identity of deaf Filipinos,” explains Mackie Calbay, program coordinator of  DLS-CSB School of Deaf Education and Applied (SDEAS) Deaf Advocacy.

FSL is believed to be part of the French Sign Language family, the sign language where most sign languages are derived from, including ASL. But like any other language, sign languages differ depending on its use and the country’s culture.

“ASL has a big influence on FSL, which can be traced back to the history of the Philippines. In terms of grammar, there are differences and similarities between FSL and ASL. There are similarities in terms of hand shapes, positioning, hand location, movement, facial expression, and palm orientation. But the conversation and discourse are different depending on the culture. For example here in the Philippines,  we have a sign for flooding inside the house, a term ASL does not have because they don’t experience it,” explains Domingo, who is also a member of the Special Education (SpEd) Council of the Department of Education (DepEd).

He explains that the use of FSL by deaf Filipinos has increased through the years. In 2007, about 60 percent of deaf Filipinos were using ASL while 40 percent used FSL. Today, they recorded that about 54 percent of deaf Filipinos use FSL compared to ASL.


Rey Alfred Lee, president of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf (PFD), says that the Filipino deaf community did not even know that FSL existed.

“A lot of deaf people did not realize that they are using FSL. They know ASL but in reality they are using FSL. Naturally, if they are conversing among themselves they are going to be using FSL but if a deaf person would have to communicate with a hearing person, there’s an automatic switching of the language. So they would convert signing exact English (SEE). But if a deaf person converses with another deaf person then they will use the more natural language, which is FSL,” Lee says.

Lee, faculty member of the Filipino Sign Language Learning Program of SDEAS, says that most of his students, both deaf and hearing, are surprised to discover that there is an FSL. DLS-CSB SDEAS is known for its use of FSL and advocates the use of the local language in the school and community.

“The support for FSL is now stronger. The influence of the usage of FSL is slowly making waves. Hopefully in terms of the usage of FSL, it will come soon but we’ll have to work double time,” Lee shares.


One of the main objectives of the deaf community is to push FSL in schools and make it the medium of instruction for deaf students. Most SpEd schools today use ASL. SpEd courses in colleges and universities also do not offer FSL in their curriculums

“The Special Education Council has made a proposal to hire deaf teacher assistants for hearing teachers who do not know sign language. The deaf assistants will facilitate communication in the classroom. DepEd is happy about that,” Domingo says.

Although Domingo says that SpEd teachers are not to be blamed.  “The SpEd teachers are aware of the need, however they are not readily accepting. We cannot blame them because the SpEd courses do not include FSL courses in their curriculum. So that means the SpEd teachers have no choice but to learn sign language by themselves. There are many organizations that don’t use FSL in their curriculum,” Domingo says.

Currently, the Philippine Federation of the Deaf (PFD) is designing an FSL curriculum for the SpEd course in higher education.

PFD will also soon work with the Japan Ministry of Education to further enhance FSL as a language. They are also in talks with the Professional Regulation Commission in licensing deaf teacher assistants to provide them with the recognition and right to benefits they duly deserve.

Domingo says that they are also now working on the curriculum for the deaf, in line with DepEd’s K to 12 curriculum.


These deaf community leaders hope that more deaf Filipinos recognize FSL, their native language.

“SDEAS is advocating the use of FSL in the community. Hopefully, through that they could foster as sense of community and also promote excellence in deaf education.  FSL is best used to have better communication. We should be using a language we could understand,” Calbay says.

And they will not stop to work to further the cause of their advocacy. After all, the deaf community is fighting for their language, fighting for their identity.

“ASL, being a colonial language, we don’t want it to be propagated here. Out of respect for the deaf Filipino culture we want FSL to be used here. It’s where we belong. It’s part of our own language, it’s Filipino. That’s how we communicate and understand each other, because this is what we use. If some people don’t take FSL seriously, other countries will look down at us, where is your own language? We’re proud that this is our language, this is what we know. This is FSL,” Domingo says.

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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