Latest Stories

In The Know: Sign languages

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, http://wfdeaf.org, http://www.ethnologue.com/14/show_language.asp?code=PSP

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

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

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
  1. 12 senators on Napoles ‘pork’ list, says Lacson
  2. Save the queen? Aide takes fall for Enrile, Gigi Reyes
  3. Palace prepared to charge its allies
  4. Senator’s kickback from pork bigger than those of Enrile, Estrada, Revilla – Lacson
  5. Napoles turnaround alarms whistle-blowers
  6. What Went Before: Malacañang allies alleged involvement in pork scam
  7. Napoles spills beans on Enrile, Estrada, Revilla – De Lima
  8. Timeline: Napoles tell-all
  9. HK apology: Why Estrada and not Aquino?
  10. Cedric Lee’s cohort flies out of PH despite look-out order – De Lima
  1. Napoles spills beans on Enrile, Estrada, Revilla – De Lima
  2. 12 senators on Napoles ‘pork’ list, says Lacson
  3. Gigi Reyes pins blame on aide
  4. Estrada: Gigi Reyes won’t testify vs JPE
  5. Bernice Lee arrested by NBI team
  6. Enrile chief aide back in PH ‘to face charges’
  7. Cedric Lee’s cohort flies out of PH despite look-out order – De Lima
  8. Suspect in Vhong Navarro’s mauling wants to turn state witness – De Lima
  9. Reckless driver endangered lives of Aquino, entourage–report
  10. Lawyer: Napoles ‘will tell all’
  1. MRT passengers pass the hat for 6-year-old Ashley
  2. Rookie, lady cops lauded for quick response to MOA heist
  3. Napoles spills beans on Enrile, Estrada, Revilla – De Lima
  4. Malaysia averts another air tragedy; pilot lands troubled plane safely
  5. Revilla says he was joking; Lacson stands by his story
  6. Revilla ‘consulted’ Lacson on how he evaded arrest
  7. 12 senators on Napoles ‘pork’ list, says Lacson
  8. Gigi Reyes pins blame on aide
  9. Cudia, dismissed for lying, got 99% in conduct
  10. Kim Henares needs a reprimand, says Cayetano


  • Ukraine FM: We are ready to fight Russia
  • Slain officer’s ‘diagram’ rocks PNP
  • 2 contractors fined P25,000 for delays in Edsa rehab
  • Luisita beneficiaries take over renters
  • 5 years of hard work pay off for top UP grad
  • Sports

  • Sharapova advances to Stuttgart quarterfinals
  • Galedo caps ride of redemption
  • Beermen, Express dispute second semis slot today
  • Lady Agilas upset Lady Bulldogs in four sets
  • NLEX roars to 7th D-League win
  • Lifestyle

  • How Jing Monis Salon gave Krissy the pixie
  • Want to be a supermodel? Work on your inner beauty, says Joey Espino
  • Denims that keep you cool–literally
  • 10 essential summer skin savers
  • Here’s your visual guide to all things cool, hot in summer fashion
  • Entertainment

  • Kristoffer Martin: from thug to gay teen
  • Has Ai Ai fallen deeply with ‘sireno?’
  • California court won’t review Jackson doctor case
  • Cris Villonco on play adapted from different medium
  • OMB exec’s assurance: We work 24/7
  • Business

  • Bangko Sentral readies new bank lending rules
  • Gaming stocks gain, PSEi eases on profit-taking
  • Cebu Pacific flew 3.74M passengers as of March
  • Corporate bonds sweeteners
  • Professionals in the family business
  • Technology

  • Vatican announces hashtag for April 27 canonizations
  • Enrile in Masters of the Universe, Lord of the Rings?
  • Top Traits of Digital Marketers
  • No truth to viral no-visa ‘chronicles’
  • ‘Unlimited’ Internet promos not really limitless; lawmakers call for probe
  • Opinion

  • Editorial Cartoon, April 25, 2014
  • No deal, Janet
  • Like making Al Capone a witness vs his gang
  • MERS-CoV and mothers
  • A graduation story
  • Global Nation

  • Afghan hospital guard kills 3 American doctors
  • Career diplomat is new PH consul general in Los Angeles
  • US4GG: Aquino should ask Obama for TPS approval, drone technology
  • Complex health care system for California’s elderly and poor explained
  • Tiff with HK over Luneta hostage fiasco finally over
  • Marketplace