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Sorry, but hallucinating sign language doesn't look like that


Thamsanqa Jantjie says he saw "angels" while acting as sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial on Tuesday.  (AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOEALEXANDER)

Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man who was supposed to act as a sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa but made meaningless hand gestures for three hours instead, claimed Thursday that hallucinations of angels made him start signing gibberish. He claimed to be schizophrenic and to have been hospitalized for his mental illness.

But Joanna Atkinson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London, casts doubt on that claim.

"The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis," she wrote in a comment sent to reporters Thursday.

Atkinson has specifically studied deaf people with schizophrenia and how hallucinations present themselves in speakers compared to signers. She noted that she could not make a judgment on whether Jantjie had schizophrenia or not based solely on video clips, and wasn't commenting on his mental health. 

But, she said, "there were many features of Mr (Jantjie)'s signing that do not chime with the typical presentation of disordered signing caused by a psychotic episode."

For example, jumbled signing, or "word salad," is "comparatively rare even among signers with schizophrenia."

Instead, signers suffering a from a psychotic episode usually use bigger gestures and facial expressions and tend to sign in a very "fast and pressured way." But they are still using real sign-language words.

"The content of such signing is bizarre but retains aspects of sign language structure such as facially expressed grammatical markers," Atkinson said.

Jantjie didn't do that. And whether he was signing in a different language had no bearing on the question.

“There are features of signed languages, such as rhythm in the movement of the hands, the use of facial action and eye gaze, which are remarkably similar across the world's signed languages. Therefore, it is possible for a deaf person to deduce that signing is odd, even when they don't use that particular sign language. 

Also, Atkinson said, jumbled signing doesn't turn off and on like a switch.

"Others around him would have immediately noticed that he was not making sense in any language. It did not look like disordered signing, it looked more like someone who is not a fluent signer making it up as they went along.

“Whether or not he was faking or is simply delusional about his interpreting ability, the ANC should have picked up on his poor quality signing earlier. This highlights the importance of monitoring of the sign language profession around the world."


Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.



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