• 'Fake' sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie says that he began hallucinating while interpreting at the Nelson Mandela memorial and saw "angels". (AAP)
The revelation that there may have been a 'fake' interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service has exposed many popular misconceptions about the deaf community.
13 Dec 2013 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2013 - 1:40 PM

The news that the South African Sign Language/English interpreter working on stage at the memorial service for the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, may in fact have been an ‘imposter’ has shocked deaf communities around the world, and left many people wondering how such a spectacular mistake could have been made.

The man, standing right next to US President Barack Obama and a host of other dignitaries addressing a crowd of over 95,000 people, appeared to be doing nothing more than randomly combining a series of meaningless hand gestures. The bizarre nature of this situation has caught the attention of the world’s media, bringing into unprecedented focus the sign languages of the world, and the interpreters that work with signing deaf communities. The recent revelation that the interpreter in question may have been experiencing the symptoms ofschizophrenia while on stage does in fact only raise more questions about what exactly happened that day.

While the news is shocking and distressing, this kind of unparalleled media attention provides an ideal opportunity for those of us who work with deaf communities to raise awareness of sign languages and the people who use them.

There is, of course, much misunderstanding about sign languages. People somehow manage to simultaneously believe a number of contradictory claims about sign languages: that there is one universal sign language, for example, and yet, that sign languages are little more than manual codes for spoken languages.

Neither of course is true: sign languages vary from one part of the world to another. Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is quite distinct from American Sign Language, and both have relatively little in common with Japanese Sign Language. Even within Australia, there are regional dialects of Auslan, with Melbourne signers traditionally using a small number of different signs for everyday concepts such as ‘car’ and the colour ‘blue’ compared to Sydney signers.

These signs do not have a one-to-one relationship with English words: a single Auslan sign means ‘that’s none of your business’ and another means ‘oh now I get it!’ Signs are not always combined following English sentence structure, but sometimes may appear in orders that would make little sense to the non-signer (e.g. ‘cake finish eat you’ signed with the appropriate facial expressions can mean ‘did you eat the cake?’). How did we get to this situation where sign languages vary from one part of the world to the next, and don’t align with spoken language grammars, you may ask?

Well, that’s because, like spoken languages, sign languages were not invented by any individual – sign languages develop spontaneously where-ever deaf people come together to form communities, and thus have emerged independently from each other at different times and in different places. Auslan is closely related to British Sign Language, and influenced by Irish Sign Language, both of which were brought to Australia by deaf immigrants in the early to mid 19th century.

As a sign language researcher, I’ve been intrigued by the question I’ve gotten often from colleagues and from the media: how did you know that this interpreter wasn’t actually interpreting into a sign language? Maybe it’s some obscure South African sign language dialect? Putting aside the fact that deaf people in South Africa quickly began complaining on Facebook and Twitter because none of them could understand him, there are a number of key ways in which his sign language production was distinctively unlike the natural sign languages of deaf communities.

First, he signed with relatively little facial expression. Brow raises and furrows, for example, are important visual correlates of rising and falling intonation in spoken languages, and such features are regularly used in sign languages to distinguish questions from statements, as well as group particular elements of a sentence together.

Second, there was a lack of mouth actions. Many sign languages use mouthing of spoken language words alongside some signs and/or mouth gestures (such as a slightly protruding tongue or pouting lips) with other signs.

Third, there were noticeably long pauses between his signed utterances, jerky transitions between signs, and too few signs to actually translate the full content of the memorial service speeches.

Fourth, there appeared to be random repetition of certain gestures, and no detectable regularities or matches to recurring spoken language words that could be their equivalents.

Fifth, the patterns of body and head movement as well as shifts in eye gaze did not appear to align, as would be expected, with elements of the sign language production.

Sixth, there was no use of fingerspelling at all in his signed production, even though South African Sign Language has such as a system of manual letters for spelling out the names of people and places mentioned in the service.

Lastly, South African Sign Language has been influenced by a number of sign languages that I am familiar with, such as British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language (from which Auslan is derived), and yet I did not see any vocabulary items that I recognise from these languages. 

Dr Adam Schembri studied English at the University of Sydney before completing a masters degree in Linguistics. He graduated in 2002 with a PhD in Linguistics, focussed on aspects of the grammar of Auslan (Australian Sign Language). He joined La Trobe University in 2011, and moved into the Linguistics program in 2013.

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