The sign language unique to Deaf Filipinos

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While plenty of Hearing are likely familiar with American Sign Language (ASL), many are still unaware that the Filipino Deaf have their own unique language called Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Photo by JELLO ESPINO

Editor’s note: The words “deaf” and “hearing” are capitalized in the article when referring to their respective communities. Some organizations and institutions prefer that their members and students are referred to as “Deaf.”

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The experience of the Deaf in the Philippines is certainly a unique one. There is at once both a strong sense of culture and camaraderie with each other, but also exclusion from the hearing community and hardship with the systems currently in place.

In the Philippines, there’s an estimated 121,000 Deaf Filipinos according to the 2000 Philippine census. Often, the Hearing might not be conscious of them or their experiences — but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. In fact, in the face of current events and changes going on in the country, it’s important now more than ever to understand and work with various sectors, including the Deaf population.

One of the common misconceptions about Deaf Filipinos has to do with sign language. While plenty of Hearing are likely familiar with American Sign Language (ASL), many are still unaware that the Filipino Deaf have their own unique language called Filipino Sign Language (FSL).

To understand the role of FSL in the Filipino Deaf community, CNN Philippines Life spoke to FSL leaders, researchers, and educators about their experiences and points of views.

A brief history of sign language in the Philippines

 According to “Filipino Sign Language A Compilation of signs from the regions of the Philippines,” published by the Philippine Federation of the Deaf (PFD) in 2005, the use of sign language in the Philippines can be dated as far back as 1604. Using signs, a Spanish priest in Leyte taught two deaf Filipinos about God. These two would then go on to teach other deaf Filipinos in their mission residence.As pointed out in the PFD publication, regardless of whether or not the exchange used Filipino or Spanish sign language, what is important is that communication took place between Deaf people using a shared language.

When the American Thomasites arrived in 1907, they brought with them ASL and artificial signs in English, marking ASL’s first entry into the Filipino Deaf’s sign language system. The CEAD FSL research team shares that the Thomasites, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, and American missionaries who founded Deaf schools in the Philippines have referred to ‘Filipino,’ ‘Philippine,’ or ‘Traditional’ signs in certain publications, such as “Love Signs,” published by American missionary Rev Wayne Shaneyfelt. This tells us about how FSL rooted itself and how the entry of ASL, especially in education, took hold.

In a lot of today’s Deaf education, Signing Exact English (SEE) is also commonly used, especially when the teacher is not deaf and defaults to directly translating the lessons.

The use of ASL early on in Filipino Deaf education has led to its being ingrained into FSL, even until today. Ultimately, FSL has become a product of the complex history of SEE, ASL, and FSL being shared in the communication between Deaf Filipinos.

As the CEAD FSL research team puts it, “there’s no such thing as 100 percent FSL ... But it’s still important that we recognize that FSL has its own structure and that it developed naturally.”

DSC_3500.jpg Filipino Sign Language has become a product of the complex history of Signing Exact English, American Sign Language, and Filipino Sign Language being shared in the communication between Deaf Filipinos. Photo by JELLO ESPINO

FSL is everywhere, but there are still plenty of misconceptions

Though Filipino Sign Language has come a long way, it is still constantly growing and evolving throughout the nation, as different regions adapt and develop their own unique signs. According to the 2004 study, “FSL Compilation of Signs from Regions of the Philippines Part Two,” the word ‘pig,’ for example, has at least 20 recorded variations across the Philippines.

Disney Aguila, president of Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, gives another example. “Halimbawa ‘Bicol,’ ganito …” she says while signing what resembles a volcano. “Kasi Mayon Volcano. Ganito ‘yan kasi visual.”

“[Pero] ‘pag dating sa Bicol, sabi nila hindi. ‘Ito ang Bicol para sa amin,’” she continues, signing instead a motion where she fans her mouth. “Kasi mahilig sila sa sili. So ang sabi namin, sige rerespetuhin namin ‘yung senyas niyo diyan.”

However, while the language continues to evolve around the country, with prevalent use of it among the Filipino Deaf, there’s still a struggle to make the rest of the nation accept and understand the nature of FSL.

Many Filipinos still think that ASL is the only sign system and that it’s used universally, but while there is indeed a large overlap in signs between FSL and ASL (and other sign languages) and plenty of Deaf would understand the gist or topic of what is being signed, it’s still not enough. There are variations in many signs, including those that refer to specific locations.

DSC_3647.jpg “Kailangan malaman [ng Deaf Filipinos] ‘yung love of their own language,” says interpreter and DepEd FSL educator Jay Lardizabal (right). “[FSL] is a language that they should be proud of.” Next to him is Disney Aguila, president of LGBTQ+ Deaf group Pinoy Deaf Rainbow. Photo by JELLO ESPINO

Another problem for advocates and users of FSL is the underlying notion that ASL is better, which is derived from the common idea that English is a better, more respectable language than Filipino.

“In the past, some people believed that ASL is the same as the English language and that FSL is the same as Tagalog,” shares the CEAD FSL team. “The stigma of English being a better language than Filipino was then transferred to the sign languages. In the Philippines, we use Filipino — that’s our own language. In the U.S., they use English and that’s their identity. That doesn’t mean English is better than Tagalog. So similarly, ASL is not better than FSL.”

But many ASL signs and phrases still find their way here and still influence the Filipino Deaf.

“Some people would be more reliant on ASL, like chatting with American friends using ASL. So sometimes they imbibe ASL and use it in their own conversations and bring it here. And then it spreads,” says the CEAD FSL team.

Interpreter and DepEd FSL educator, Jay Lardizabal is more blunt about it. “Pinapatay mo ang FSL,” he says. “Kailangan malaman nila ‘yung love of their own language. It’s a language that they should be proud of.”

HB3.jpg According to Hazel Bual, Deaf Advocacy Program Coordinator and educator at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies, one of the obstacles faced by Deaf Filipinos is a lack of representation, which affects how accessible we make our country for them. Photo by JELLO ESPINO

Language as identity

For the Filipino Deaf community, FSL is embedded in their identity especially because it’s very much influenced by the culture and environment that surrounds them. As a visual language, it’s informed by what the deaf see.

“Ang mga Amerikano, lumaki sila, nakita nila visually kung ano ‘yung nasa lugar [nila]. ‘Yung mga kultura ng mga nakakarinig doon, nakukuha. Iba kasi dito sa Pilipinas — kung ano ‘yung nakikita nila dito visually, the culture — ‘yun ang nakikita nila. It’s more geographical,” Lardizabal explains.

The research team at CEAD also shares the same sentiments. “FSL is important to the Filipino Deaf community because when we are able to freely use this and feel we are understood, [that] is empowering to us,” they explain.

“To know that we have a legitimate language gives us pride and sense of belonging as members of Filipino Deaf community that has its own language, identity, and culture. Without FSL, we feel colonized by another language and this has tremendous effects to our self-identity and confidence. We feel the inner confusion of who we are as a person and as a community but feel isolated by others.”

“My dream for all Filipino Deaf is to really recognize their identity, to use FSL, and for others to respect FSL,” adds Patrick Ablaza, project leader of the CEAD FSL research team. “It is not a tool — FSL is the identity of the group. It’s related with culture. Like Jose Rizal said: ‘Ang tao na hindi nagmamahal sa sariling wika ay mas mabaho pa sa malansang isda.’”

DSC_3686.jpg The Philippines is currently not the easiest place for the Deaf. Accessibility is scarce even in places such as hospitals, where the Deaf often have to bring and pay for their own interpreters on top of the doctor’s fee. Photo by JELLO ESPINO

Creating a more inclusive space for FSL speakers

The value we place on FSL is not limited to identity but also influences how empowered our Deaf brothers and sisters are and how much more inclusive we can make our country for them.

The difficult truth is that the Philippines is currently not the easiest place for the Deaf. A recent video featuring former Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and blogger Drew Olivar showed the two mocking sign language and the deaf, bringing to light the stigma felt by members of the community.

At court or on the news, there are no interpreters, making it difficult for those who are deaf to know what’s going on around them.

“Noong nangyari si Yolanda, kasi walang accessibility, ang naiwan ang mga Deaf. Kasi walang access, walang nag-sabi, walang media, walang FSL na nandiyan,” Lardizabal recounts.

Accessibility for the Deaf is scarce even in places such as hospitals. Often, the Deaf have to bring and pay for their own interpreters on top of the doctor’s fee. There is also a scarcity of interpreters in the Philippines because of a lack of hearing allies, awareness, and structure in the profession. Plenty of interpreters lack decent pay and benefits, and while it’s supposed to be necessary for events such as court hearings, the PRC does not grant them licenses.

There is also a lack of Deaf representation, which affects how accessible we make our country for them. Hazel Bual, the Deaf Advocacy Program Coordinator and educator at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies, shares that there was even an incident in government last year with the National Council On Disability Affairs wherein the blind representatives were asked to explain FSL to the Senate. This angered plenty of Deaf Filipinos because they were not able to speak for themselves regarding an issue that very much involved them.


“The deaf must be represented. Hearing people should never decide for us for whatever the issues are,” Bual signs. “In terms of access, we are very different. We have a very different perspective. You cannot tell us that you know more than us because this is our experience. Allow us to feel, allow us to express ourselves, to inform the people about what our experiences, narratives, and perspectives are. Don’t set us aside.”

Despite all the barriers that make it impossible for Deaf Filipinos to be truly included and independent in the world, there is plenty that can be done and is being done about it. For example, the CEAD is making strides with Deaf Education at the Benilde Deaf School, pushing FSL syntax research and soon offering diploma courses on Sign Language Documentation. On her end, Disney Aguila is working with Pinoy Deaf Rainbow and LoveYourself to create a safer, more inclusive environment for LGBTQ Filipino Deaf, providing counseling for HIV positive Deaf Filipinos.

All of these projects are bricks in building a more inclusive Philippines, but it should not just be the Deaf putting in all the work. The Hearing communities around them should be in solidarity with them — exercising respect, awareness, and thoughtfulness that results in real and relevant changes for Deaf Filipinos to have representation, accessibility, and a genuinely recognized identity.