Languages play a crucial role in many fields. In some of them, it is important to understand how large the impact of learning and knowing a language is. The lack of language knowledge can, indeed, in many cases result in conflicts or misunderstandings. Hence, it is significant to have the full capacity to understand and interpret yourself perfectly in a foreign language. In forensic linguistics, one small mistake in analysing a foreign language may affect the lives of others negatively.
Jordi Cicres, professor of Catalan and Spanish language at the University of Girona, is an expert in the Forensic Linguistics Laboratory at Pompeu Fabra University and in SQ Linguistics Forensic Lab. He demonstrated the importance of language in forensic linguistics and how it is applied effectively in diverse fields such as voice recognition, analysis, and comparison of written letters, and other juridical procedures.
First Encounter with Forensic Linguistics
Prof. Jordi Circles has always had a passion for literature, reading, writing, and his mother tongue, Catalan, which inspired him to study Catalan Philology. His professor encouraged him to continue his research in Catalan Syntax which led him to apply for a PhD in Applied Linguistics in Barcelona where he had his first encounter with forensic linguistics. His curiosity led him to further research about this topic and eventually, he realized how important languages are in connection with the law. Consequently, he went to the UK to further study this field and worked in forensic cases such as providing judges and juries with expert evidence and knowledge about linguistics to help the justice system.
Areas of Forensic Linguistics
There are many areas of forensic linguistics. One area concerns the analysis of the language of written legal texts. Legal documents are often issued in high academic language or complicated grammar, which often makes it difficult to interpret and understand the content and meaning of the letter. Forensic linguistics translates the content to facilitate the understanding of the users. The information given in the document is the same, however, it is interpreted in a simpler way for people who face obstacles in comprehending the meaning. There are more cases, for instance, defendants of temporary restraining orders sometimes break the law by contacting the victim indirectly due to a lack of comprehension of their restraining orders. This incident may increase their sentence, or it may even result in imprisonment. Due to such circumstances, lawyers and judges are required to issue more precise clarification of the rules and prohibitions of the restraining order. Forensic linguistics provides its aid by interpreting such documents with more clarity to avoid violating the laws unintentionally.
Another area is the spoken language of the legal process in the courtroom. Certain people are responsible for analysing and studying how witnesses or judges speak and how the police conduct interrogations. These lawyers or officers are professionals in using language to confuse their witnesses. In some cases, witnesses, victims, or culprits are induced to tell lies. In other cases, if an accused person doesn’t speak the language of the court, a translator is required to interpret everything for the judge and jury. However, difficult situations can arise if the translator uses different words or delivers the wrong message to the court which impacts the accused person negatively.
Another dimension is providing linguistic evidence such as speaker identification. In this instance, linguistics experts are called to the court to analyse and compare recordings in order to determine if the voice matches the suspect. This area is called forensic phonetics. Experts gather voice samples of the accused person and observe how common the voice features are and how often they appear around the world. They further identify the exact geographical origin of the speaker as well as analyse the use of the language and dialect. This profession requires strict and clear identification as one small mistake may accuse an innocent person wrongly.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
There is a famous forensic phonetics case that Prof. Cicres took part in. Oscar Sanchez from Barcelona was a falsely accused victim due to a mistake committed by a forensic linguistic expert. Oscar was wrongly sentenced to prison due to a drug-dealing accusation with the Italian mafia in Naples. Family, friends, and witnesses declared his innocence and expressed their disbelief at the accusations against Oscar. Despite all evidence provided to prove his innocence, an inexperienced forensic linguist concluded that the voice of the recording matched Oscar Sanchez which ultimately led him to go to jail.
Nonetheless, his friends asked Prof. Cicres and his team directly for help. The team went to Italy to compare and analyse the voices once again, and it was proven that Oscar was not a drug dealer based on his Spanish dialect. The actual culprit was from Uruguay and Oscar Sanchez was freed after spending two years in prison. Due to the inexperience and lack of knowledge of Spanish languages of the former forensic expert, an innocent person was wrongly accused and deprived of his freedom. Hence, it is critical to be cautious and to have efficient knowledge of a language to avoid such failures.
Languages provide great benefits to society and play a significant role in a lot of fields and sectors. The ability to understand and speak a language can open many doors to diverse dimensions. Languages can assist and ease the tasks of people in different professions. However, they may also cause misunderstandings or even impact your whole life negatively. Thus, it is essential to be well acquainted, confident, and honest in carrying out your profession.
“One should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand.” – Marcus Fabius Quintilian
Final words: SIETAR Austria and The Multilingual Garden would like to express their appreciation and gratitude to Prof. Jordi Cicres for participating in our series for spreading more awareness of the advantages and importance of languages in forensic linguistics.
You can find further information about Prof. Jordi Cicres at: https://www.udg.edu/ca/directori/pagina-personal?om=ACV&ID=53270&language=en-US
Furthermore, we are grateful to Dr Karin Martin for leading The Multilingual Garden and continually acknowledging the value of multilingualism in our societies.
References and Sources:
YouTube Link to Expert Talk with Prof. Jordi Cicres:
Information about The Multilingual Garden: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-multilingual-garden/?trk=ppro_cprof&originalSubdomain=at
Information about the University of Girona: https://www.udg.edu/en/
Picture of Prof. Jordi Cicres: https://www.udg.edu/ca/Portals/47/od_images/Jordi_Cicres.jpg