For Bayani Generoso, being a Filipino Sign Language interpreter is more than just a job—it’s a calling that took him traveling across North America, before he returned to the Philippines in 2012.
While based in Canada, Bayani spent seven years as a community interpreter, joining projects that helped create accessible environments for the Deaf and DeafBlind. Now in the Philippines, he worked as a project consultant with Deaf education programs, and began working in media, with fellow interpreters and health professionals, to provide remote health and information access to the Deaf community as the pandemic hit.
On this year’s International Week of the Deaf, we talk to Bayani about his work as an interpreter, FSL’s importance to the local community, and how hearing persons can contribute to the cause.
How did you get into the field of sign language interpretation?
BAYANI: I was just captivated by the language. I think sign language is so beautiful, and I had always wanted to learn but never had the excuse to do it. It wasn’t until I was working at a bank [in Canada], where a manager announced that we would have a Deaf person as part of the team, that I thought, “This is my excuse.” I borrowed books and watched videos just to be able to have a conversation with this person. I did my best to have a conversation, and he was very patient with me. His name is William; he was my first Deaf friend.
Every Tuesday, we’d have an interpreter come in for our business meetings, and I was amazed by her skill. One day I told William that I really wanted to be an interpreter, and just like in Deaf culture, he was so blunt; he just said, “Well then, quit your job and do it.” Long story short, I did.
While based in Canada, you interpreted using American Sign Language (ASL), but the Philippines recently recognized its own official sign language: Filipino Sign Language (FSL). How does FSL differ from ASL, or what makes it distinctly Filipino?
BAYANI: There actually has been documentation of Filipino Sign Language in the 1590s in Dulag, Leyte, by a priest who was writing about his encounters with the local Deaf people. FSL has been with us for hundreds of years, [and] it wasn’t until Americans started coming to the Philippines through the Peace Corps where ASL had an influence in FSL. Just like [how] at one point, we were speaking very pure Tagalog, and then Americans came and started inserting [English] words. It’s the same thing with Filipino Sign Language. Now, it’s being recognized, and it’s been a decades-long fight by the Filipino Deaf community.
[While] there are similarities between FSL and ASL… it’s two different languages. If you put two Deaf people together—one that uses ASL and one that uses FSL—someone who doesn’t know sign language [might think] it looks the same, but someone who is part of the community sees [the difference]. In some instances, they wouldn’t be able to understand the other because of it.
We have over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and Deaf people [live] all over the country.
We have to remember that the “F” in FSL is “Filipino,” but it doesn’t refer to the language, but the person. Language is rooted in culture, so you can say FSL is a language rooted in Filipino culture while ASL is rooted in American culture.
For example, Filipinos say thank you by touching the fingers to the chin and then moving the hand forward. But in Japan, they bow to each other, so they sign thank you with a bow of the head. You can see that the language is rooted in the traditions, customs, and culture of the people who use them, so they’re very distinct.
Are there any nuances in Filipino speech that FSL is able to“translate” better than ASL or Signing Exact English (SEE)? Like cultural differences in how we speak Filipino?
BAYANI: I think that still relates to that misconception that FSL is to Tagalog where ASL is to English. Since they are distinct languages, depending on the capacity of the interpreter, it can be translated in any way: FSL can be translated into English, ASL into FSL, and English into ASL. It can be translated into any other language, it just depends on the capacity of the interpreter.
And are there specific variations in FSL depending on where it’s used, or does it also depend on who is using it?
BAYANI: We have over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and Deaf people [live] all over the country. Again, language relates to the culture of the area you’re in, so there are variants in signing. For example, ASL signs “coconut” as if you’re holding a coconut next to your face and shaking it slightly. In FSL, one variant of that is to use one arm to mimic a tree, and with the opposite hand you mimic plucking a coconut off of it. [While] there are variants, you can easily understand what it means if you know the culture.
Unlike spoken languages where if you had a Tagalog speaker try to converse with a Waray speaker, it would be very difficult; if you consider variations in FSL—like a Deaf person from Palawan and a Deaf person from NCR trying to communicate—it would be a lot easier for them. The structure and grammatical features of FSL are similar enough that they can have a conversation.
Language is rooted in the traditions, the customs, and the culture of the people who use them.
FSL has been around and in use since the 1600s, but it was only recognized as our official sign language in 2018. Would you say this recognition is especially important for the Deaf community?
BAYANI: It’s significant because Deaf people under the law finally will have access to all government transactions—access to medicine, to the justice system, and more importantly, to education. We know that education is the vessel to opportunity, and I’m speculating, but I think the reason why we don’t have Deaf doctors and lawyers here is because our education system for the Deaf is a little bit behind.
I don’t want to lay blame on anyone because I know that people really want to help the Deaf community, but that’s part of the problem—it’s not about helping, but empowering them.
The Filipino Sign Language Act will really be groundbreaking for the Deaf community, but there’s still a long way to go, because recognition and implementation are two different things. The one good thing, though, is that Deaf people are finally being invited to the table, and [that’s why] there’s movement in this advocacy. They’re being represented, they’re contributing in all stages of development, and that’s one component that’s been missing in the past.
Having worked in different settings, what can you say about the access or inclusivity of communication in the Philippines? What have we been doing right, and in what ways do we need to do better?
BAYANI: Inclusion feels like the new buzzword. The intention is good, that we want to include people, but there has to be action behind it. What we’ve been doing right is recognizing Deaf people. We’ve recognized that they have a distinct language and we’re giving them a voice; we’re inviting them to determine their own path. I don’t want to be too negative about what we’re doing bad, but let’s just say that we really still have a long way to go.
I think the best indicator is… once I see a Deaf doctor in the Philippines, that’s when I know we’re doing something right. Once the system is comprehensive enough that a Deaf person is given the access and opportunity to pursue their dreams. We’re not at that stage, but there are many Deaf leaders and allies to the community that are pushing towards that.
But Deaf people are finally participating in discourse, and I feel like that’s a very significant step.
What communities or projects in the Philippines do you think are doing well in providing access for Deaf persons?
BAYANI: The Philippine Federation of the Deaf is involved in community projects and are actively part of the push for Filipino Sign Language. The FSL Access Team (ACT) for Covid-19 provides media and health access for the Deaf. It’s remotely [done], but we have a lot of doctors and health workers on the team, so Deaf people are able to access us for an appointment or prescription if they need it.
There’s also the Philippine Deaf Resource Center that’s involved in research. And then the Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI); we’re a non-government organization that provides professional development, mentoring, and we’re really pushing for the recognition of interpreting as a profession.
We have to remember that the “F” in FSL is “Filipino,” but it doesn’t refer to the language, but the person.
As hearing individuals and as Filipinos, what can we do to contribute to the efforts to make communication—and society in general—more inclusive and accessible to the Deaf community?
BAYANI: One thing that might be insignificant to some people but very important to the community is the way that they are addressed. They want to be called Deaf, with a capital D, or Bingi—not hearing-impaired, not deaf-mute—because it recognizes their cultural identity and not just their hearing loss. That’s one thing hearing people can do, and it’s very simple: just call them Deaf.
If you’re interested in signing, I encourage hearing people to learn from the Deaf community. There are many teachers of Sign Language out there that are hearing, and for me, I feel [that] takes away the opportunity from a Deaf person who is more than qualified. Like I said, language is rooted in culture, and a hearing person wouldn’t have as much of a grasp of that compared to having a Deaf teacher.
Interested in learning more about FSL?
The Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI) presents Quaranterps Rise Up: a three-day e-Conference and Workshop series on sign language interpretation and its ever-evolving role. Find out more.