Last week, we saw a post on Facebook compiling the posts of people who either mistook sign language in-sets on local newscasts as something similar to the social app Tiktok.

This did not go well with the Deaf community. This did not also go well with the Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI).

Interpreters seek awareness after online ‘mockery’ of sign language insets

MANILA – An organization of sign language interpreters has asked the public to be more aware of their work and the Deaf community after some netizens questions the use of insets during television newscasts.

I set up a Zoom meeting between me, Filipino Sign Language (FSL) Interpreter John Baliza from the FSL Access Team for COVID-19 and Ms. Yvette Apurado, a Deaf person who accepted our invitation for the said meeting.

The next part of this story is an edited transcript of the said conversation.

The Importance of Filipino Sign Language in information dissemination

Question: (For Yvette) As a viewer, does the lack of Filipino Sign Language interpreters make it difficult for the Deaf to understand the news and make proper decisions?

Yvette: That’s very true. Especially without interpreter inset on television, it’s very challenging for us to really understand what is being said on television, on the news and so usually what we do is ask our family members, our friends or relatives, but sometimes the information that we get from them is not enough, it’s very limited.

Not all family members would know sign language and so it’s very important, it’s a necessity for us to have interpreter inset so that we fully and completely understand what is being said on the news.

Question: (For both John and Yvette) Why there is a need for FSL interpreters in information dissemination?

Yvette: It is very important for the Deaf community and, because again, they are not able to access information because they are not able to hear, so it’s not only information on news, but like all sorts of information in healthcare, in whatever dealings they have with the community.

So, it’s very important that they should understand what is going on, and that’s why the interpreter plays a crucial role in bridging that communication gap.

John: For me, as an interpreter, it’s the same perspective as the Deaf people.

Interpreters are very important because it’s not only they help bridge the communication gap between the Deaf and hearing, but also interpreters are sort of like cultural ambassadors, because sometimes hearing people don’t understand the culture of the Deaf people in the same way that Deaf people don’t really fully understand what the hearing culture, and that’s two different things.

It’s not only about the language, but it’s also about making sure that the cultures of both the hearing and the Deaf would try to blend as easy as possible, and try to make it as normal as possible. That’s why interpreters are very, very important.

Understanding FSL in today’s context

Question: (For John) In this time where the social video app Tiktok is making waves, how we can tell the uninformed about the crucial role of FSL/any sign language?

John: I think there was this incident like two days ago where some people like mock our interpreters on television, primarily because I think it’s the lack of awareness, maybe that’s a novelty, maybe it’s a new thing that the first time they saw a TV inset.

And so, maybe for the benefit of some trying to be famous, they make fun of the interpreting community, without these people realizing that it’s not the interpreting community that they’re affecting but also the Deaf community in a way.

Yes, it is insulting to the interpreters but more importantly, I would say, oppressive for the Deaf community. Usually they would see us doing a lot of signing on the inset without them realizing that it’s actually a language.

We’re not just like inventing movements like what they do on Tiktok, but this is a real language.

Filipino sign language is a real language that is owned by the Deaf community, and so for these people to mock interpreters.

To mock FSL, it’s like saying they’re also mocking a very natural language. It’s mocking the community who owns that language. So I’m just hoping there would be more understanding and more respect coming from these people.

Question: Is there a difference between FSL and the sign language used in other countries?

John: Here in the Philippines, we have our own sign language, which is the Filipino sign language. It’s a very unique language, it’s 100% uniquely for Filipino Deaf community.

For example, Yvette is signing this (gesturing two open palms pointing to the lips and then moving the hands forward and a bit down in the direction of the person), this is the Filipino sign language for “thank you;” in Japanese sign language, they would sign thank you this way: (gesturing with flat hands, the right hand taps the left wrist, bringing it upwards) Arigato gozaimasu.

[…] In the same way, we have our own alphabet in Filipino sign language. In Australia, they would use a different hand shape for the sign language, like A, B, C, D; but here in the Philippines, we use A-B-C-D (see figure below). So, they are two very distinct languages, and all over the world, most countries, they have their own sign languages.

I would also like to add that Filipino sign language is very unique. I just want to clarify that FSL is not related to the spoken Filipino. It’s not Tagalog, because people thought “FSL, that’s Tagalog,” no. Spoken Tagalog or spoken Filipino is very different, like grammatically, structurally, they’re two different languages altogether.

FSL is a visual language, has its own structure – and yes, it’s true, there’s no such thing as international sign language. As Yvette mentioned, each country, they would have their own sign languages. Why, because it’s deeply rooted to their own cultures.

Even here in the Philippines, we do have subsets of Filipino sign language, like there would be regional variations, like Deaf people from Manila may be signing a bit differently from Deaf people like for example in the Visayas or Mindanao.

There’s also what we call the beki signs, like the gay signs… so it’s not a language on its own, but it’s sort of an offshoot of Filipino sign language. 

The LGBT Deaf community created their own sort of signals or codes that only them could understand, just like in spoken language, we have our general Filipino but the LGBT hearing community would have their own bekinese.

It’s a very interesting language, so there’s no such thing as an international sign language.

Question: Usually, how long does it take to learn the Filipino sign language? Was it weeks, days…?

Yvette: Well, it could vary from person to person. It’s the capacity of a person of learning a language – if the person is able to grasp the structure, the linguistic features of FSL, maybe it could be easier for them to understand the rules of grammar of FSL; but even for Deaf people, we cannot assume that they are born already knowing sign language, they also have to learn the formal signs as soon as they started school.

If they are born Deaf, they don’t have FSL yet, that’s part of them.

John: As a hearing person, it would take many years to learn sign language. Just like any language, it’s continuously evolving. So it doesn’t mean that “OK, I learn sign language for one year, and that’s it.”

Maybe next month, there may be new signs added to the vocabulary of FSL, just like what happened now during this COVID-19 crisis, we don’t have established signs yet for many of the technical words that they are using now on television.

What we did in the team of the FSL Access Team for COVID-19, we have Deaf consultants there who came together to discuss and analyze the meaning of certain words that they are using on TV and they agreed to establish some arbitrary signs for technical words.

Yvette: Filipino sign language, they would have regional variations and we actually published a book wherein it’s a compilation of different vocabularies all over the Philippines on FSL and it also includes idiomatic expressions, so it could vary from region to region.

There are certain communities in the Philippines who would be, who might be signing differently, and we are hoping that we could continue with this project because language is evolving and in order to preserve this language, we have to make sure that all of these are being documented.

FSL as a bridge between the hearing and the Deaf

Question: Why should everyone learn FSL, and how does it affect the communication between the hearing and the Deaf?

Yvette: It goes both ways for hearing and Deaf people. As I have mentioned, FSL is a very rich language, and in order for the two cultures – the hearing and the Deaf communities – to understand each other, we first need to realize that Filipino sign language should be recognized as an equal language, of equal status with other spoken languages, so that’s the first step.

John: In addition to what Yvette said, I think there’s a huge communication gap between hearing and the Deaf. If we really want to make the Philippines an inclusive community, an inclusive country,

I think the first step is us to learn the language of the Deaf.

For so long, they have been excluded because they don’t have access to information us hearing people have set a lot of barriers to communication, to information; and so if us hearing people would be able to learn sign language then that means breaking down those barriers and making sure that we achieve that goal of being an inclusive country.

No laughing matter

Question: Why we should not discriminate against the Deaf and the FSL interpreters by dismissing sign language as some form of mimicry (like how some regard FSL as Tiktoking)?

Yvette: Filipino sign language is not something to be made fun of.

It’s a crucial and a vital component of our Deaf community, so if that is how they would treat the language, making fun of the language, that would mean that our rights as human beings are not being respected and recognized.

Doesn’t mean that we are using a different language that we are like second-class citizens, but being able to respect and recognize the language and the culture and the identity of the Deaf people and making us a part of a bigger society, of a bigger community, then that means that these people should afford to the respect that Deaf people and interpreters deserve.

And so that is why we actually have a legislation, the Filipino Sign Language Act (Republic Act 11106), that would promote the usage of FSL all over the country as well as the recognition of FSL as a natural language of equal status to other spoken languages in the Philippines.

Recap: FSL interpreters in important in sharing information, this is why the Deaf community has fought so much to include FSL interpreters in newscasts and even in the City of Manila, they have an FSL interpreter in every Facebook live that they do.

The FSL is not Tiktok, it’s not meant to be mocked, it’s not something that people will dismiss as some form of mimicry, and in the context of sign language worldwide, there are unique sign languages for every country – and as with language, it evolves, so that’s why it’s important for people who are interested in learning sign language to understand it – and it’s basically a commitment, am I correct?

John:  Yes, that’s right. For us interpreters, it’s a lifelong commitment, so yes, you really, it’s not only about learning a language but it’s more learning about a group of people, learning about the culture of the Deaf people.

Yvette: In terms of the labels that we use Deaf people, we prefer to be called Deaf with a capital D rather than calling them hearing-impaired, so that’s the Deaf-friendly term.

Sitting in the shows of the Deaf and the interpreter

Any Parting words for this conversation?

Yvette: For the hearing people, it’s very sad to see what happened with regards to the Tiktok incident, but then again, I’m hoping that they would be more respectful towards us Deaf people, towards our community, our language, and our culture;

We are hoping that instead of mocking our language, I’m hoping that we could just work together.

These interpreters are working very hard to ensure we get access to information, and I’m hoping that we would try to do or part in cherishing this, in making sure that we take care of each other.

Again, respect begets respect. Recognize that having this access is or basic right, and so we’re hoping that everyone would be more aware of that and would be more understanding.

John: FSL is not a laughing matter, it’s something very serious, especially now during COVID-19.

It’s difficult because like for most interpreters, we are so overwhelmed by doing the news interpreting on television and having to respond to the incident of Tiktok, our plates are already so full, so I’m just hoping that for hearing people.

If they can’t be of any help to the Deaf community, I’m just hoping that they don’t add more problems, so just be respectful, be more sensitive, and be more mindful that what we are doing on television is something serious – it could actually mean life or death for the Deaf community.

And honestly, we had some of our interpreters who are, what happened in the bullying online, actually impacted them mentally and emotionally.

So there are very few interpreters left now, the number of interpreters are now very limited, and I’m hoping that instead of bullying them, instead of mocking them, we could just be more supportive especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

My thoughts

The Enhanced Community Quarantine Period is something that we don’t want to happen but it needs to, for our safety as well as to flatten the curve or decrease the number of patients and casualties affected by this invisible sickness.

We repeat: It’s most important that everyone gets access to information especially during this time.

My initial response to the incident is that those who dismiss sign language as Tiktoking do not know what they are talking about, they should be called out for it, but I am reminded by Mirai in her tweets that we don’t need too much hate floating around – it does not help us keep ourselves sane at all.

Instead of channeling my disdain on social media, I sought help to get in touch with a sign language interpreter to discuss this face-to-face.

Ironically, I am reminded of comedian Joey de Leon saying this: “Explain before you complain.” Even if we don’t mention the man here, by explaining the concern, we help people understand the situation with empathy.

To note, not all things on Tiktok are bad – we’ll take the example of learning sign language on the platform. Sure, Tiktok definitely has its flaws, but there are also quite a number of people we can look up to.

This Viral TikTok From A Deaf Creator Is Moving People To Learn Sign Language

If you don’t live with a disability, you may not appreciate how crucial and meaningful community and accessibility are – but one viral TikTok is demonstrating it perfectly. Chrissy Marshall, a 19-year-old content creator in Los Angeles, was born hard of hearing and became profoundly deaf in high school.

Perhaps it was also in good timing that A Silent Voice will be broadcast on TV tomorrow. I’m happy to watch it again after I’ve seen the film in the cinema.

We wish everyone the best – keep safe, take up a new hobby, and keep yourselves active.