The seminar takes place at 2 p.m., in room F397, Stockholm University. All students and faculty of SU are welcome.

Abstract

Aneta Pavlenko (University of Oslo)
An illusion of understanding: How non-native speakers of English understand their rights

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed by 168 states, declares that every suspect has the right to be presumed innocent, to be informed about the charges in “a language which [the suspect] understands” and “not to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.” “Since these rights would be of little value if individuals are unaware of their existence, there is a corollary right to be expressly informed of these rights,” states the Handbook for police officers and other law enforcement officials by the European Convention on Human Rights and Policing (Murdoch & Roche, 2013, p. 83). In many jurisdictions, police inform the suspects of the right to silence and the right against self-incrimination at the outset of their custody to ensure they know their fundamental rights.

Recent research conducted in Australia, UK and the USA shows that even in native speakers of English comprehension is affected by the wording of the rights, by the level of education and cognitive abilities, and by situational factors, including stress and trivialization strategies used by the police (Rock, 2007; Rogers et al., 2010, 2011; Scherr & Madon, 2013). The problems are even greater among vulnerable populations, including juveniles, people with mental disorders, and second language (L2) speakers of English (Bowen, 2017; Eades, 2010; Pavlenko, 2008; Pavlenko et al., 2016) but until now there have been no empirical studies with L2 speakers.

In this talk, I will present the first findings of a large-scale study conducted jointly with Scott Jarvis (University of Utah) and Elizabeth Hepford (Temple University), where comprehension of the Miranda rights and legal language in general was tested in native English speakers and three groups of L2 speakers with L1 Arabic, L1 Chinese and other L1s.The findings reveal that even advanced-level speakers do not fully understand their Miranda rights. Predictably, their performance was affected by the L1 background, level of proficiency, sentence length and complexity, and word frequency and type (everyday vs legal vocabulary). Unexpectedly, the participants did not realize that they did not understand – drawing on their partial knowledge of homonyms, polysemy and false and partial cognates, they constructed alternative meanings that created a dangerous ‘illusion of understanding’.