UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre


Media Release

12 December 2001, 1:45 pm

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'Fake' Mandela interpreter claims schizophrenic episode

The Mandela memorial interpreter accused of being a 'fake' has claimed that he suffered a schizophrenic episode while on stage, and that he suddenly lost concentration and started hearing voices and hallucinating.

Dr Jo Atkinson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre, UCL said:

"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.

"It is not possible to make a judgement about whether or not someone has schizophrenia if they do not share your own language or based on film-clips, so this is not a comment on Mr Jantjie's mental state.

There are features of signed languages, such as rhythm in the movement of the hands, the use of facial action and eyegaze, 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. 

"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.

"Bizarre fluidity of thought or jumbled signs are comparatively rare even among signers with schizophrenia. This typically presents as larger, more expansive, use of facial expression and signing space, and signing in a very fast and pressured way. The content of such signing is bizarre but retains aspects of sign language structure such as facially expressed grammatical markers.

"By contrast, Mr Jantjie signed without facial expression and in a regimented and contained way.

"Bizarre jumbling of words or signs is known as word salad and this does not come on suddenly, or switch on and off in a signer having a psychotic episode.

"It would also affect his spoken language and would occur alongside significant cognitive dysfunction. 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."

Dr Joanna Atkinson is a researcher at the Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre and is a certified Clinical Psychologist with additional qualifications in Clinical Neuropsychology. Her work cuts across several fields including, cognitive neuroscience, neuropsychology and psycholinguistics and she has written extensively in these fields. Her published work on this subject area include:

o Atkinson J R, Gleeson K, Cromwell J, and O'Rourke, S, (2007),  Exploring the perceptual characteristics of voice-hallucinations in deaf people. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 12(4), 339-361

o Atkinson J R, (2006), The perceptual characteristics of voice-hallucinations in deaf people: insights into the nature of subvocal thought and sensory feedback loops. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 32(4), 701-708