THE HISTORY OF SIGN LANGUAGE IN THE PHILIPPINES:
PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE
Rafaelito M. Abat and Liza B. Martinez, PhD
Philippine Federation of the Deaf, Inc. / Philippine Deaf Resource Center, Inc.
The progressive view of deafness moves beyond that of hearing-impairment or handicap
and sees Deaf individuals as part of a cultural / linguistic minority. Thus, the natural
visual language of the Deaf, its history and development, is a vital element of the
community and culture, as well as various aspects of advocacy.
In the Philippines, the emerging consciousness of the Filipino Deaf community has been
towards the recognition of Filipino Sign Language, or FSL. The name itself is fairly
recent, perhaps only about two decades old. However, the historical beginnings of sign
language in the country go back to over four centuries ago.
The more visible influence has been from the American Deaf community. Hearing
educators from the U.S. played a key role in the establishment of residential public
schools in the early 1900s. The placement of the U.S. Peace Corps from 1974-1989
through their Deaf education program was the avenue for strong influence by American
Sign Language. Ensuing contact took place through religious organizations, other
educators, and the entry of print and video materials of American Sign Language and
Manually Coded English sign systems.
The initiation of sign language research by individual linguists as well as the Philippine
Deaf Resource Center, and the Philippine Federation of the Deaf have established the
fundamental structural and socioloinguistic differences between American Sign
Language and Filipino Sign Language. Documentation of regional variation and
implications on language policy and planning are among the current thrusts of these
Recent archival materials have uncovered evidence of sign language use during the 16th
and 17th centuries in Leyte. This was through the contact between Jesuit missionaries and
Deaf Filipinos in the town of Dulac. Continuing investigations on this early language
contact is being undertaken.
Particular intriguing questions are presented in this paper: the possible influence from
Spain (and Spanish Sign Language) through the Jesuit Father Ramon Prat; and, the equal
possibility that the signing community already existed even before the arrival of the
Jesuits. Current correspondence with sign linguists in Spain is providing additional
information. Speculations on other possible European influence are also discussed.