Wednesday, 5 October 2016

So, what is Forensic Linguistics?

For the past 18 years, when someone's asked me "What do you do?", I've generally replied that I'm a lexicographer and waited for the baffled look. To be honest, it's not completely true that I've been a full-time lexicographer for all of that time, but it's easier to explain than 'ELT materials writer' or 'corpus researcher'. "I write dictionaries" has generally more-or-less worked as a definition. Last week though, I made my first tentative steps along a potential new career path and I suspect it's going to be even more tricky to explain ...

I've just embarked on a two-year, part-time MA course in Forensic Linguistics at Cardiff University. It didn't get off to a terribly auspicious start as I sniffled my way through the first week with a rotten cold and a head full of cotton wool, but I think I picked up enough through the fug to attempt to explain in general terms what forensic linguistics is.

It's a relatively new field of study and so, to an extent, isn't fully defined yet, but I'll borrow a break-down from one of my first lectures to explain the key areas of study and research:

Legal Language: looking at issues around the incomprehensibility of written legal texts for a general audience. Why is it so difficult for ordinary people to understand the legal documents we all come across - contracts, wills, pension documents, etc. and what can be done to improve this?

Language in the Legal Process: exploring how language is used (and misused) in the legal process when people interact with the police, lawyers and the courts. How does the language of the legal process disadvantage some people and groups, how is it abused and how could it be improved?

Language as Evidence: this is the CSI/Silent Witness aspect of 'forensics' that most immediately springs to mind. It looks especially at questions of authorship - identifying who wrote a blackmail threat or threatening email or determining whether a confession or police statement was really made by the person accused or was falsified. It can also include identifying speakers from recordings of their voices - who phoned in a bomb warning or was speaking in the background of a 999 call?

I'm coming into the course with an open mind about which area I'm most interested in. I guess it was the idea of 'language as evidence' that first drew me in - and it's probably the 'sexiest' part of the field - but as I've spent the past 25 years honing my skills in writing and explaining ideas as clearly as possible (for foreign learners of English), I do wonder whether I could turn those skills towards making the language of the legal process more comprehensible and accessible. Could I help train police and other legal staff  how to better communicate with non-native speakers of English, perhaps?

And then there's the whole area of corpus research ... many areas of linguistic research nowadays are turning to corpora (large collections of language data) to find answers to all kinds of questions and provide quantifiable evidence of usage. From what I've read so far, forensic linguistics is a field absolutely crying out for more reliable, quantifiable evidence, especially that will stand up in court. Having worked with corpora for almost 20 years now, this is certainly an area that's going to be piquing my interest.

Through this blog, I'm planning to reflect on my experiences as a student and to write about the ideas and research that jumps out at me as most interesting. I can't promise how regularly I'll manage to post as I'm attempting to juggle part-time study with continuing my other work in ELT (and my other blog), but let's see how it goes ...

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