Transcript: April 2013
What exactly do applied linguists do, and how might your work be relevant to a non-academic audience? In Australia, are there many people working in the part of applied linguistics you work in?
Applied linguists take findings from linguistic research, and apply them to real world questions, issues, problems or debates. Most applied linguistics has focused on educational issues, particularly those related to language learning. I have specialised in the applications of linguistics (particularly sociolinguistics) to the legal process. This is a much smaller and newer area of applied linguistics world-wide and in Australia. But Australia is making some important contributions in this area, with the work of about a dozen of us being internationally recognised.
What is sociolinguistics?
Linguistics is the study of language and languages, while sociolinguistics is the study of language used in social contexts. While linguistics mostly analyses the structure of language, sociolinguistics analyses language function and use.
We're used to hearing about forensic policing, forensic medicine etc., through popular media like TV shows, but you talk about forensic linguistics. What is ‘forensic linguistics’?
Forensic linguistics is used broadly to refer to the study of language in the legal process, and more narrowly to refer to using linguistics in expert evidence in court. Personally I don’t like the term much, although I’ve been very involved with the International Association of Forensic Linguists, since a small group of us established it some twenty years ago. We changed the name of the journal ten years ago from Forensic Linguistics to International Journal of Speech Language and the Law (and I’ve been a co-editor since 2006).
Can we expect to see any TV shows on forensic linguistics?
Part of me hopes that we don’t! This is because I fear that trying to translate linguistic studies of language in the legal process into a popular TV show might distort and overestimate what linguists can do. That’s why I don’t like the term ‘forensic linguistics’ much. It can make people think of fingerprints and DNA evidence, but linguistic evidence is often much less black-and-white. There is no linguistic magic formula, or black box that can solve crimes, for example. So, the complexities of linguistic evidence in individual cases can be hard to get across. However, there was a forensic linguist character in the popular 1994 ABC TV drama Heartland. His role in providing linguistic evidence in a verballing case was based on my work in the Condren case (see chapters 7 and 8 in the new book); I had provided details to the scriptwriters of the series.
This book is a collection of papers that cover decades of research. In going back through the materials, what were some of the things that struck you about what's changed in our understandings over that period?
In preparing this book last year, I was struck both by how much has changed and how much hasn’t. Australian communities, societies, and cultures have changed in thirty years, and there is much more mobility and mixing. But there is still a lot of continuity in Aboriginal ways of living, interacting and communicating.
When I was first researching Aboriginal ways of using English more than thirty years ago, many non-Aboriginal people thought that Aboriginal people in places like Southeast Queensland were ‘just the same as Whites’. In working against the assimilationist climate of that time (early 1980s), it was inevitable that researchers like me sometimes overlooked the diversity of Aboriginal communities and cultures. I think we have developed a better understanding now that there are many different ways of being Aboriginal.
So, this understanding resulted in me talking for the past twenty years or so about bicultural Aboriginal people — explaining that some people can switch between Aboriginal ways of living, thinking and talking, and mainstream Anglo ways (it’s a bit like being bilingual). There are now increased opportunities for many Aboriginal people to become bicultural, but it’s still something that needs to be explained to many lawyers, judges and magistrates. And I find myself still explaining why we need to understand Aboriginal ways of using English — and why it matters in the twenty-first century.
Thirty years ago most Aboriginal people couldn’t believe that there was anything interesting or important about the way they were speaking English — they’d had decades of being told they were speaking “bad English”. You still see some after effects from this negativity. But it’s great to see now that a growing number of Aboriginal people are proud of their ways of talking, and that it is increasingly recognised as being a part of identity.
Another change is about how linguists understand the nature of languages. We used to think of a language as a discrete entity that was clearly separated from other languages. But increasingly we’ve been realising how much overlap there is between related language varieties (we like to use the term “language varieties” to refer to both languages and dialects). So labelling someone as speaking language variety X or language variety Y is not a simple matter (in fact it really is an abstraction).
You talk about Aboriginal people using English in a particular way, but you don’t use the term 'Aboriginal English' very often; the title of your book is Aboriginal ways of using English. Why is that?
This is a good question, which I discuss in the book’s introduction. What linguists can observe and study is people speaking, so that’s the best place to start. And we know that many Aboriginal people use English in Aboriginal ways, with influence from Aboriginal languages and cultures. Decades ago people referred disparagingly to Aboriginal ways of speaking English as ‘bad English’ (or worse). Beginning in the 1960s, linguists started using the name
‘Aboriginal English’ for the dialectal varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people. That name has been important in the recognition of Aboriginal ways of speaking English, and it’s a term I still use. But there is so much variation in different varieties of Aboriginal English, that I like to use the expression “Aboriginal ways of using English”, where possible. I like this expression so much, I decided to use it as the title for the book.
Which aspects of the book (or which chapters) do you think people understand the least and/or from which they might learn the most?
I guess this depends on the backgrounds of different readers. High school students might want to start with the short chapters: 5, 6 and 9. While they are based on linguistic research, these three chapters don’t give detailed explanations or references to other research. But having read them, I hope students have questions and want to know more, and then go to chapters 1–4. Like chapter 6, chapters 7 and 8 are largely based around stories of criminal cases in which Aboriginal use of English has been an important factor. But these two chapters were originally written for other scholars and uni students, so some high school students might find them a bit hard to follow.
I hope that university students and scholars start at the beginning of the book, reading the descriptions of Aboriginal ways of using English, and then moving on to read about legal applications. I also hope that legal practioners and judicial officers will read all of the chapters in Part II (‘Focusing on the criminal justice process’), and be so engaged that they are drawn to read the chapters in Part I (‘Describing Aboriginal use of English’).
The last two chapters are the most challenging. They come out of my most recent research, which builds on the earlier work. In this current work I’m trying to dig deeper into the way language is used in the legal process, particularly the criminal justice process. Intercultural communication in the legal process — as anywhere else — is a two-way process. Chapters 10 and 11 look at assumptions made in the law about how language and communication work, particularly how these assumptions can contribute to continuing inequality for Aboriginal people using English in the legal process.
Some people in Aboriginal communities get sick of researchers traipsing through, and may not see the relevance of that work to their lives. Over time, how have you chosen the communities you worked with and how did you negotiate the relationships?
I’m sure that lots of Aboriginal people are sick of being researched. And I wonder how I would feel if a researcher wanted to ‘hang out’ with my family and observe and record how we communicate?
I was priviledged to do my most intensive community work as part of Michael Williams’ oral history work with his extended family in Southeast Queensland in the early 1980s. Michael introduced me to his mob, and organised many of the field trips, and it was through developing relationships with members of his family that I had wonderful opportunities to learn so much about how people use English in their everyday interactions.
But in the last twenty-five years most of my research has focused more on intercultural communication, especially in the legal process. While concentrating my energy on this specific and very important area, I have not had to intrude into people’s families and homes. The main way I’ve been doing this research is by researching language use in public courtroom hearings, and by responding to requests in individual cases. At the same time, once a sociolinguist starts listening to the ways people use English, you never stop. The evidence is all around you. So I have plenty of opportunities through this work in legal contexts, as well as through everyday interactions with a wide range of people, to continually observe and reflect on different ways of using English.
We now know some important things about ways that many Aboriginal people use English differently from mainstream Anglo ways (and people can read about this in the first half of the book). One of my current priorities is to communicate about this with lawyers, magistrates and judges, and police officers. My other priority is to unravel some of the complicated ways that English is used by legal and judicial officers, especially in court, so that we can see what changes need to be made in order for Aboriginal people to have equality in the legal process (people can read about this in the second half of the book).
It's usual to think that the dominant language in a country influences other languages, but there seem to be borrowings from Aboriginal ways of using English into standard Australian English. Can you give us any examples of this and how is it happening?
Yes, all languages leak. Deadly is a great example. Many young non-Aboriginal Australians now use this to mean “fantastic”, a meaning it’s had in Aboriginal English for decades. I guess having the Deadly Awards televised nationally every year has added to the acceptance and spread of this word.