Language puts ordinary people at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system


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‘Now, did you understand all that?’
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David Wright, Nottingham Trent University

Language is pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. A textual chain follows a person from the moment they are arrested until their day in court, and it is all underpinned by meticulously drafted legislation. At every step, there are challenges faced by laypeople who find themselves in the linguistic webs of the justice system.

Anyone who reads a UK act of parliament, for example, is met with myriad linguistic complexities. Archaic formulae, complex prepositions, lengthy and embedded clauses abound in the pages of the law. Such language can render legal texts inaccessible to the everyday reader. Some argue (see Vijay Bhatia’s chapter) that this is a deliberate ploy by the legal establishment to keep the non-expert at an arm’s length.

But closer to the truth is the fact that legal language, like all language in all contexts, is the way it is because of its function and purpose. Those drafting laws must ensure enough precision and unambiguity so that the law can be applied, while also being flexible and inclusive enough to account for the unpredictability of human behaviour.

The cost of this linguistic balancing act, however, is increased complexity and the exclusion of the uninitiated. Legal language has long been in the crosshairs of The Plain English Campaign which argues for its simplification, claiming that “if we can’t understand our rights, we have no rights”.

It is not only written legal language that presents difficulties for the layperson. Once someone is arrested they go through a chain of communicative events, each one coloured by institutional language, and each one with implications for the next. It begins with the arresting officer reading the suspect their rights. In England and Wales, the police caution reads:

You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.

This may seem very familiar to many readers (perhaps due to their penchant for police dramas), but this short set of statements is linguistically complex. The strength of the verb “may”; what exactly constitutes “mentioning” or “relying”, and what “questioning” is and when it will take place, are just some of the ambiguities that may be overlooked at first glance.

What the research says

Indeed, research has found that, although people claim to fully comprehend the caution, they are often incapable of demonstrating any understanding of it at all. Frances Rock has also written extensively on the language of cautioning and found that when police officers explain the caution to detainees in custody, there is substantial variation in the explanations offered. Some explanations add clarity, while others introduce even more puzzles.

This issue of comprehensibility is compounded, of course, when the detainee is not a native speaker of English.

The word of the law.
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The difficulties in understanding legal language are typically overcome by the hiring of legal representation. Peter Tiersma, in his seminal 1999 book Legal Language, noted that “the hope that every man can be his own lawyer, which has existed for centuries, is probably no more realistic than having people be their own doctor”.

However, in the UK at least, cuts in legal aid mean that more people are representing themselves, removing the protection of a legal-language expert. Work by Tatiana Tkacukova has revealed the communicative struggles of these so-called “litigants in person” as they step into the courtroom arena of seasoned legal professionals.

Trained lawyers have developed finely-tuned cross-examination techniques, and all witnesses who take the stand, including the alleged victim or plaintiff, are likely to be subjected to gruelling cross-examination, characterised by coercive and controlling questioning. At best, witnesses might emerge from the courtroom feeling frustrated, and at worst victims may leave feeling victimised once again.

The work of forensic linguists has led to progress in some areas. For instance, it is long established that the cross-examination of alleged rape victims is often underpinned by societal preconceptions and prejudices which, when combined with rigorous questioning, are found to traumatise victims further. Recent reforms in England and Wales provide rape victims with the option to avoid “live” courtroom cross-examination and may go some way towards addressing this issue.

Further afield, an international group of linguists, psychologists, lawyers and interpreters have produced a set of guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the US. These guidelines include recommendations for the wording and communication of cautions and rights to detainees, which aim to protect those already vulnerable from further problems of misunderstanding in the justice system.

The ConversationLanguage will forever remain integral to our criminal justice system, and it will continue to disadvantage many who find themselves in the process. However, as the pool and remit of forensic linguists grows, there are greater opportunities to rebalance the linguistic inequalities of the legal system in favour of the layperson.

David Wright, Lecturer in Linguistics, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Speaking in tongues: the many benefits of bilingualism


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Teresa Parodi, University of Cambridge

We live in a world of great linguistic diversity. More than half of the world’s population grows up with more than one language. There are, on the other hand, language communities that are monolingual, typically some parts of the English-speaking world.

In this case, bilingualism or multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm – for example in regions of Africa. A Cameroonian, for example, could speak Limbum and Sari, both indigenous languages, plus Ewondo, a lingua franca, plus English or French, the official languages, plus Camfranglais, a further lingua franca used between anglophone and francophone Cameroonians.

On a smaller scale, we all know families where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak different languages or because the family uses a language different from that of the community around them.

How difficult is it for a child to grow up in such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very young age. They can understand and produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the other.

Noses for grammar

Clearly we are talking here of a range of different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.

But they also have linguistic skills, some very obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.

Less known are the cognitive skills developed by bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.

Is it worth it?

What if one of the languages is not a “useful” one because, for example, it does not have many speakers (for example, Cornish)? Is it worth exposing the child to it? The linguistic, social and cognitive advantages mentioned above hold, independently of the specific languages. Any combination of languages has the same effect.

A common worry is that trying to speak two (or more) languages could be too strenuous for the child. But there is no need for concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows.

Telling you where to get off in two languages.
Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.com

There could be a practical problem, though, in providing enough exposure to the languages. The stress is then on the parents to ensure the opportunity to interact with speakers of the languages in question. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different language does not guarantee a bilingual child.

Code-switching is cool

Another frequent worry is that of the child learning two half languages, short of the “proper” version of either of them. One may, for example, hear bilinguals – children and adults – using words or expressions from two or more of the languages in their linguistic repertoire in a single sentence or text, a phenomenon known as code-switching.

Often people assume that the main reason for doing this is a lack of sufficient proficiency in one of the languages, such that the speaker cannot continue in the language they started in. They also often assume that the choice of the words from one language or the other is random. Far from it. Code-switching is common among bilinguals and, contrary to popular belief, it follows grammatical rules.

Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often, code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned. Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.

Additionally, if asked for clarification, they know if they have spoken too quietly or used the wrong language, and only switch in the latter case. Both bilingual children and adults have a range of reasons, including sociolinguistic reasons to code-switch. Code-switching can be cool!

All typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one language is an asset well worth the investment.

The Conversation

Teresa Parodi, Lecturer of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Raising a bilingual child: The top five myths


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Myths about raising a child with more than one language abound. Sometimes parents are discouraged from doing so. They’re told it can lead to confusion and speech delays, or that they’ve missed the window of opportunity.

For many parents, bilingualism is a sign of intelligence, and also gives children an advantage in their studies or future career opportunities. Research has shown that being bilingual can have other cognitive advantages as well, which is making many parents jump on the bilingual bandwagon.

But it wasn’t too long ago that many educators had misgivings about raising children in a bilingual or multilingual household. As a result, many families, especially immigrants, were encouraged to only use one language at home, as to not cause confusion and speech delays for children. Many parents living and working abroad also become discouraged when their children don’t speak to them in their native language any more, and give up completely.

So what is really going on? What is the final word on raising your kids to be bilingual?

Here are the most common myths – and the real story behind raising a child to be bilingual.

1. Growing up with more than one language confuses children.

This is by far the most prevalent of all the misconceptions. Some parents think that if a child is exposed to two languages at the same time, he might become confused and not be able to differentiate between them.

“From just days after birth, all infants can tell the difference between many languages,” says Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child. She says this is especially true when the languages are quite different from each other – as different, for example, as French and Arabic.

“At that young age, infants generally still have trouble telling two very similar languages apart, like English from Dutch. But by about 6 months of age, they can do that too,” she says.

The confusion myth is probably the result of older research that looked at poorly designed studies and drew the conclusion that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. This research prompted educators to push immigrant parents to drop their heritage language and emphasize proficiency in English.

2. Raising a child to be bilingual leads to speech delays.

Some children raised bilingual do take a little longer to start talking than those raised in monolingual households. The delay is temporary, however, and according to experts, it’s not a general rule.

Unfortunately, parents who raise concerns about the speech development of their bilingual child are often told to stick to one language. This happens because in the past, bilingualism was considered the culprit in problems with language development.

“Research indicates that bilingualism does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition,” says Ellen Stubbe Kester, president of Bilinguistics, which offers bilingual speech-language services in Austin, Texas.

Even if your child has already been diagnosed with some kind of speech delay, raising him bilingual won’t make his speech any more delayed.

“Studies have found that children with language delays who are in dual language environments gain language at the same rate as those in monolingual environments,” says Kester.

3. Bilingual children end up mixing the two languages.

Mixing languages is both inevitable and harmless. But to some unfamiliar with bilingualism, it’s proof that the child can’t really tell the languages apart.

Most children who are raised bilingual do resort to mixing as they sort out both languages. In addition, one of the languages often has a stronger influence on the child than the other. Kids who have a smaller vocabulary in the minority language may draw on words from the majority language as needed.

Experts agree that mixing is temporary. Eventually, it goes away as a child’s vocabulary develops in both languages and he has more exposure to each one.

In actuality, bilingual speakers of all ages mix their languages (also known as code-switching). A perfect example is the widespread use of Spanglish (mixing English and Spanish) by Latinos in the United States.

“Sometimes people do it because they don’t know a word they need in the language they’re speaking,” says Pearson. “Some people mix on purpose because they like the word or phrase in the other language better.”

Children model what they see and hear, so if your child lives in an environment in which mixing languages is the norm, expecting him not to do so is unrealistic.

4. It’s too late to raise your child bilingual.

It’s never too late – or too early – to introduce your child to a second language.

“Learning a second language is easier for children under 10, and even easier for children under 5, compared with the much greater effort it takes adults,” says Pearson.

The optimal time, according to experts, seems to be from birth to 3 years – exactly when a child is learning his first language, and his mind is still open and flexible.

The next best time for learning a second language appears to be when kids are between 4 and 7 years old, because they can still process multiple languages on parallel paths. In other words, they build a second language system alongside the first and learn to speak both languages like a native.

If your child is older than 7 and you’ve been thinking about raising him bilingual, it’s still not too late. The third best time for learning a second language is from about age 8 to puberty. After puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language.

“We hear so much about the special ‘window of opportunity’ for young children to learn two languages that it can be discouraging to the older child,” says Pearson. “It’s true that it’s easier to start earlier, but people can learn a second language even after the window has closed.”

5. Children are like sponges, and they’ll become bilingual without effort and in no time.

Although it’s easier for children to learn a new language the earlier they’re exposed to it, even then it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It’s unrealistic to expect your child to learn Spanish by watching countless episodes of Dora the Explorer on television.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be a chore. But introducing a second language to your children does require some kind of structure and, most important, consistency, whether it’s through day-to-day conversation or formal instruction. The idea is to expose them to language learning in meaningful and interesting ways that are connected to real life.

Get ideas and strategies for raising a bilingual child in Raising a bilingual child: Fun, music, and games.

Were you raised in a bilingual environment, or are you raising your children to be bilingual?

Have you heard these myths from teachers or friends?

Do you think being bilingual is difficult for children?

We love to read your comments below!

This was written by Bilingual freelance journalist Roxana A. Soto who is the co-founder and co-editor of SpanglishBaby, a website for parents raising bilingual and bicultural children.