Natalie Schilling

Multilingualism and the law: Comprehending rights and communicating testimony across languages 


Natalie Schilling (Georgetown University)


Aneta Pavlenko (Center for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan, University of Oslo, Norway);

Scott Jarvis (University of Utah) and Elizabeth Hepford (Wesleyan University): The comprehension of Miranda rights by non-native speakers of English

Jan Svennevig and Pawel Urbanik (MultiLing, University of Oslo, Norway): Comprehension strategies in the communication of rights to L2 suspects in Norwegian investigative interviews

Philipp Angermeyer (Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, York University, Toronto, Canada): The pragmatic consequences of linguistic difference in courtroom interaction


In this panel, we explore issues in comprehension and production in cross-linguistic legal encounters, specifically the comprehension of L2 speakers’ rights in arrest encounters in the U.S. and Norway and the communication of narrative testimony in courtroom interaction by witnesses of minority language background. Cross-linguistic misunderstandings can occur on all linguistic levels from lexical to pragmatic and impact civilians, law enforcement and legal professionals, lay jurors, and others affected by or making assessments of guilt and innocence (e.g. suspects’ families, the media). The consequences can be grave when suspects ‘voluntarily’ waive rights they do not fully understand they are entitled to and when minority witnesses unwittingly produce narratives judged to be non-credible when under questioning by experts in the majority language and its manipulations in legal settings. The panel will open with brief remarks by the convener, followed by three presentations by four invited speakers. A panel discussion with audience participation will conclude the colloquium. Issues to be considered range from the problem of coerced and false confessions in police interviews in situations of unequal power and inequitable linguistic relations, the (purposeful) undercutting of witness credibility in multilingual courtroom settings, and resultant concerns with false conviction, wrongful imprisonment, and failure to convict or even seek genuine perpetrators at the expense of ‘convenient’ suspects who lack facility in a majority language. 

Organizer’s Bio

Natalie Schilling is a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She specializes in the investigation of variation and change in American English dialects and the study of intra-individual stylistic variation. She regularly teaches Sociolinguistics and Forensic Linguistics at Georgetown. She has given more than 100 presentations at U.S. and international academic conferences, university academic departments, and forensic linguistics training workshops on the scientific analysis of language evidence. She has spoken to groups ranging from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to incarcerated persons in maximum-security prison. She has served as an expert forensic linguistics in cases involving authorship attribution, speaker profiling, and related matters. Her publications include authoritative books on American English dialect variation and a video/audio course on the history of American English as part of The Great Courses lecture series