Signed Xhosa, double doubles, and other problems for sign language interpreters

Since my last post about the pseudo sign language that appeared and rapidly disappeared at Piarco Airport, an even more shocking story emerged about the fake sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. You can watch him in action here.


Predictably, there have been unfunny jokes (the joke being essentially: “sign language looks funny, lol!”), and hasty apologies. There have been all kinds of claims: that the problem was that he was “signing Zulu” (he wasn’t and anyway, that wouldn’t be ok), that as a non-native English speaker he was struggling with English (doesn’t explain why he was signing utter nonsense, surely you’d at least make something up), and that he was having a schizophrenic attack (unlikely to be an explanation).

Inevitably, there has been some confused and confusing reporting. Many of the initial reports repeated the following statement:

“South African sign language covers all of the country’s 11 official languages.”

I think the original intention of this statement was that there is a reasonably well accepted national sign language, South African Sign Language (it’s a name, so capital letters, please), rather than many different sign languages, but the way the statement was repeated out of context meant that the meaning was largely lost. It could be taken to imply that SASL is a mixture of those other spoken languages, which is quite wrong. Replace SASL with the name of a spoken language and try to make sense of it:

“English covers all of the country’s 11 official languages.”

Along similar lines was the following comment, made by a reporter on ABC News:

“Different countries have their own version of sign language based on their own language, but from what I hear English has become more common, a sort of de facto language in sign.”

Sign languages are not versions of each other: would anyone say that “different countries have their own versions of spoken language”? And (apologies for shouting, but let me just get it out of my system) SIGN LANGUAGES ARE NOT BASED ON SPOKEN LANGUAGES. English is not a sign language, nor is there an “English Sign Language”. British Sign Language and American Sign Language, for example, are completely different languages.

This particular misunderstanding, the idea that sign languages are based on spoken languages, is widespread, even among those who are responsible for providing interpreters, and sometimes even among interpreters themselves, and it can be the source of serious problems.

Research has suggested that Deaf people from around South Africa can understand each other quite well, despite the inevitable regional differences, but that complications arise when there are interpreters and other hearing people present. As researchers Debra Aarons and Louise Reynolds have written:

“if an Afrikaans Deaf person signs, then the hearing people demand that he or she must be voiced by an Afrikaans interpreter. However, when the interpreter signs for an Afrikaans- speaking hearing person, the other (non-Afrikaans) Deaf people cannot understand the interpreter and, consequently, the interpreters who serve each community need to interpret the spoken Afrikaans into signed language for their community.”

This should be a contradiction. If everyone knows SASL, and it “covers all of the country’s 11 official languages”, it shouldn’t make a difference what spoken language is being interpreted (so long as the interpreter is fluent in that language). As they go on to explain:

Obviously, the problem does not lie with Deaf-Deaf communication, but with the hearing-Deaf communication. We must assume that the interpreters are sticking very closely to signed Afrikaans or signed English or signed Xhosa, which is indeed the case. This practice explains why Deaf people who do not know the structure of Afrikaans will not understand the interpreter who is interpreting from spoken Afrikaans into signed Afrikaans. The interpreter is not interpreting into signed language but is putting Afrikaans on his or her hands and mouth. The problem created by this form of signing is not a sign language variation problem. It is, instead, a fine example of how hearing people who are involved with Deaf people often believe that signed language is merely spoken language on the hands.

Signed Xhosa, signed Afrikaans and signed English are not SASL. Signed English means taking words from a signed language and organising them according to English grammar. If SASL grammar were used, there would be little or no such problem.

This is also an issue in Trinidad and Tobago. Interpreters here sometimes fail to sign in a way that reflects natural Deaf signing, and instead use words from ASL or TTSL, but following the completely different grammar of English. Of course, to any non-signers present, the problem will not be apparent, unless perhaps they catch sight of the bored or perplexed looks on the faces of the Deaf people.

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South African deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, has said some odd things recently, but there is something in the following quotes:

“The issue of sign language has always been about where you live, what school you go to and what language you speak.”

“There is a battle between black and white sign language people. Urban and rural. Whose slang takes priority? What unit should be used to measure it?”

Ignoring the usual derogatory use of “slang” to demean non-standard language, it is true that, as a result of complicated histories, there is bound to be variation in the kinds of sign language used by different people in different parts of the country, and that that variation may well be difficult for interpreters in some instances. Variation in spoken languages is also likely to be a problem sometimes, such as when speakers switch between languages in which the interpreter may have less competence.

There is also significant variation in sign language in Trinidad and Tobago. The last post featured the following sign meaning ‘doubles’:

There is another sign which means exactly the same thing, and looks like this:

I have heard it suggested that Deaf people in T&T should get together and decide on the signs they want to use, and stick to those. The issue is complex though, and it is not helpful to frame it as a problem for Deaf people. Variation is bound to exist. Should American and British speakers of English get together and decide whether we should be saying “trunk” or “boot”, or what exactly a “fanny” is? Variation is natural and unavoidable. Instead, what we need is more research so that we can understand the nature of the variation, and better training for sign language interpreters, so that they are better able to cope with it.

Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg, who was widely quoted in reports on the fake interpreter story, made an important point:

“Those hiring [interpreters] usually don’t sign, so they have no idea that the people they are hiring cannot do the job”

Crucially, Deaf people should be directly involved in assessing and certifying interpreters, and in deciding which interpreter will be working with them. In Trinidad and Tobago, it is still too often the case that there are no sign language interpreters at all, but when one is present, it is important that the Deaf person is consulted on the choice of interpreter, to ensure that the person chosen is both competent and familiar with the variety of signing they will be using.

The fact that there are serious problems with sign language interpreting in South Africa, in Trinidad and Tobago, and all over the world shouldn’t take away from the skill, dedication and commitment of the many interpreters who frequently work for little or no financial reward, and play a crucial role in making this a more inclusive, fairer society. Things are changing. Yesterday, as the news story was breaking, a Deaf student at the University of the West Indies was taking the final exam for a Linguistics course with support from a sign language interpreter, the first time this has ever happened in T&T. Next year, the University will offer a Diploma in Caribbean Sign Language Interpreting, providing training to interpreters and would-be interpreters.* More people than ever before are taking ASL and TTSL classes, and in Jamaica, it was recently announced that a Sign Language Interpreting Programme will be piloted in the Senate in January. As people around the world discuss the fake interpreter, as they hear for the first time about Deaf South African Member of Parliament Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, about the differences between using a sign language and just waving your hands around, about what sign language interpreters actually do, and about how Deaf people feel about their languages and about this kind of slight, there is hope that the legacy of this bizarre incident may just be a huge leap forward. There’s certainly still a long walk ahead.

*If you’re interested in learning to sign in T&T, in a career as an interpreter, or in taking the Diploma, please get in touch with me at

4 thoughts on “Signed Xhosa, double doubles, and other problems for sign language interpreters

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