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In The Know: Sign languages

/ 02:15 AM November 06, 2012

Sign languages, like spoken languages, vary from country to country.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), each country has one or two sign languages that often share the same linguistic roots in the same way as spoken languages do.

Based in Helsinki, Finland, the WFD is an international, nongovernmental central organization that counts as “ordinary members” 133 national associations of deaf people.


The WFD estimates that there are about 70 million deaf people who use sign language as their first language or mother tongue.

Sign language is not an international language. But users of different sign languages understand each other far more quickly because there are universal features in sign languages. According to the WFD, this has been called the International Sign.

One of the sign languages in the Philippines is the Filipino Sign Language (FSL). According to the 2005 edition of Ethnologue, it is used by at least 100,000 people and is reported to be very similar to American Sign Language (ASL).

FSL is used by deaf people in Manila. Another sign system, Signing Exact English (SEE), is also used in Philippine schools for the deaf, including public schools. SEE follows the grammatical structure of the spoken English language, and involves translating spoken English directly into sign language.

“Natural” sign languages like FSL and ASL, on the other hand, do not have spoken or written equivalents. For their grammatical structures, they also use body positions and facial expressions. They do not solely use hands, like SEE.


According to Roberto S. Salva, executive director of the Catholic Ministry to Deaf People Inc., FSL and ASL, described as “visual-manual languages,” emerged naturally from deaf communities. FSL and ASL are distinct from each other, and are both distinct from sign languages of other languages like Japanese, Vietnamese and British.

In his commentary published in the Inquirer on Nov. 3, Salva noted that there were differences among signs used in different locations.


In his article, Salva relayed the experience of Pamela, one of the scholars who work as a teacher in a deaf community, who noticed that some signs used in Calbayog, Samar, were different from those used by the deaf in Manila.

Salva warned that the passage of a bill that would establish FSL as the national language of deaf Filipinos “without provisions protecting other sign languages” might “edge out” other sign languages indigenous to deaf communities outside of Manila.

Research in sign language started in the 1960s in the United States and the Netherlands. It has confirmed that sign languages are complex natural languages and part of the deaf culture at all levels from local to national. They have been found to have existed as long as spoken languages.


Who are their inventors? According to the WFD, probably every known group of nonspeaking deaf people observed around the world uses some sign language. Even isolated deaf individuals have been observed to develop a sign language to communicate with hearing relatives and friends.

Sign languages have arisen spontaneously through time by people who interacted using sign languages as their main form to communicate.

But devised or derivative sign languages have been intentionally invented by some particular individuals like educators of deaf children to represent spoken language. The examples of these, mostly used in classrooms, are the “Manually Coded English”, “Signing Exact English” and “Linguistics of Visual English.”

Legislation for sign languages varies in each country. The rights of deaf people to education and equal participation are legislated in some countries. But in other countries, the use of sign languages in classrooms is forbidden. Uganda was the first country in the world to pass a law recognizing sign language.

The WFD advocates the improvement of sign languages. It takes the position that any forcible purification or unification of sign languages, conducted by governments, professionals working with deaf people, and organizations for or of the deaf, is a violation of the UN and Unesco treaties, declarations and other policies, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It says: “Deaf people in every country have the sole right to make changes, if necessary, in their own local, provincial and national sign languages in response to cultural changes. The control of the development of any sign language must be left to any social group where the particular sign language is exercised.”

Source: Inquirer Archives, World Federation of the Deaf website,,

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TAGS: Filipino Sign Language, Finland, Helsinki, linguistic roots, Sign languages, spoken languages, WFD, World Federation of the Deaf
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