Forensic Linguistics – Or A Story About How I Used To Help Sneaky Lawyers Get Immigrants Off Drunk Driving Charges

First (1)

This is not a dig at the cops. I have good mates who are police. It’s just a story… recorded here for posterity. Also, if I was doing all this again, I would take a different approach.


A long time ago, when I was much younger (and much more naive), I had a gig where I would work with lawyers defending immigrants and refugees who couldn’t speak (much) English.

The accused were always poor and had a court lawyer appointed and paid for by legal aid.

They were also all speakers of English as a second (or third or fourth) language.

I must have helped on around 20 cases like this in the 90s just after completing my post-grad studies in applied linguistics. In 19 out of 20 cases I think we were successful in getting the charges dropped.

Usually, their stories would unfold something like this.

He (the accused were always male) was minding his own business when the Police got involved for some unfathomable reason. One thing leads to another and suddenly he’s being arrested, charged and sentenced in court.

Of course, he has no idea what is going on. Especially through the early stages of the process.

I had one client who was asleep in his car when it happened. Let’s call him Mr A. The Police knocked on his window, woke him up accused him of drunk driving and then charged him with refusing to give blood.

I had another guy (Mr T) who was arrested after chasing down another dude who he caught burglarizing his house. He called the Police himself. But he probably should have put down the metal rod he was holding when he chased the burglar down the road.

And this is when I used to get called in.

I was engaged as an expert witness. My speciality was part of what I learned was called forensic linguistics. This is a fancy way of saying you use skills from applied linguistics in the pursuit of justice.

You see, our justice system relies on everyone having certain rights. This is codified in the Bill of Rights. And for me, the essential thing was the Advice Pursuant to the Bill of Rights.

Things are different now. I hope. I do know that now there are lots of cops who come from many different ethnic and language speaking backgrounds. So hopefully the problem doesn’t exist.

But 20 years ago, here’s how it used to play out. The cop would recite the Bill of Rights Advice at 100 miles an hour. Like a mantra or telephone number.

It sounds like this: “Yunnastandthatdjuvdaritetaconsultninstructalawyer?”

The answer, of course, was always “yes” on the part of the accused. What was happening is that they did understand that they were being asked a question. What they didn’t understand was what the question was about.

But they usually knew that the answer had to be yes. Because you don’t say no to a Policeman right?

So they just said yes. Usually, that meant they nodded.

And then they signed a statement to say that they understood.

But did they actually understand? Well… that’s where it all gets kinda grey.

For me, it was easy to make a case that they didn’t have a clue what was going on. I would meet them and interview them for an hour. I’d test their vocabulary – both general and specific to the Bill of Rights.

And I’d interview them. I might ask them to read something or do a few other tasks. But the outcome was always compelling evidence that they did not understand their rights at the time that they were read to them.

Yes, they signed a statement to say that they understood. But that’s a minor detail when you can prove that someone knows less than a thousand words of English and none of them are the weird legalese of the Bill of Rights.

Case closed. Nevermind whether they were actually guilty or not.

I see you cringe. The point was that their rights were more important.

Police prosecutors hated me. I understand why. No hard feelings. It wasn’t personal. Well, it was a little bit personal at the time.

I got cross-examined a few times. That was terrifying. But it was also exhilarating. Eat your heart out John Grisham.

Afterwards, the lawyer told me that only new or inexperienced prosecutors will cross-examine an expert witness.

I’m not sure that is always true. But it was easy to run rings around him. He just dug himself a deeper and deeper hole.

I’m sure the story as a moral somewhere. But I stopped doing this work because I moved to Japan. And I felt that a couple of my clients probably should have gone to jail. Or at least lost their licences.

For a boring version of this tale, please see the attached PDF which I wrote for an equally obscure academic journal while teaching in Japan.




Demands: But wait, I’m an ESOL teacher…!

Knowing the demands (13)

Mapping the demands for teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

If you are not an ESOL teacher – someone who teaches refugees and migrants with little or no English – you can skip this section.

But if you are an ESOL teacher, and you teach a course that is funded by the TEC you might want to read on.

One thing to remember is that there are lots of ESOL teachers involved in teaching literacy and numeracy. And most find themselves having to complete the NZCALNE (Voc) literacy and numeracy professional development at some stage.

To complete the qualification, one of the things that you have to do is demonstrate that you know how to identify and map the context-specific literacy and numeracy demands of your course.

What does this mean for an ESOL teacher?

This means that there are a couple of things to think about.

First of all, “context-specific” means your ESOL context for your purposes. We’re not trying to get you to look at a different context than the one you’re already looking at.

So, relax…! We know that ESOL tutors don’t teach welding or hairdressing. 

What are literacy and numeracy demands for ESOL?

Literacy demands are straightforward for TESOL. They include aspects of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

However, the some specific numeracy demands might have you scratching your head.

But ESOL teachers do discuss and teach things that we can identify as numeracy. Here are some examples.

  • In an “Everyday life in NZ” course you might discuss how to tell the time or how to read a bus timetable or schedule of some kind. Reading maps; giving, receiving and following directions; navigation tasks are all numeracy.
  • In a workplace ESOL environment, it’s possibly even easier. Many workplaces require staff to undertake tasks involving measurement or do calculations. If you are a workplace ESOL tutor, you’ll already be aware of the numeracy demands.
  • Other tasks could include looking at payslips or relevant financial material, or dosages for medication including for children.
  • Any of these tasks will be more or less demanding depending on what’s required by your context. This is what we want to see when you submit your evidence.

Here’s another example.

  • In an academic preparation course, you might look at how you interpret data in a graph or table and then write this down in words. The demands here might relate to achieving an IELTS band 5 for writing with an attached set of descriptors.

All the best with mapping the demands of your ESOL programme and context. If you get stuck, get in touch with us

How important is it that we also focus on ESOL learners in the new NZCALNE qualification?

Please Vote

The new version of the adult literacy and numeracy education qualification includes a focus on English language learners. This increases the relevancy of the qualification for tutors who teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL).

We’ll build this content in regardless, but what I’d like some feedback on is how important this is to people.

Here are some more things to think about if this affects you, your staff, or your learners

It’s Not Rocket Science: Embed Specialised Vocabulary With These Simple Matching Activities

Literacy Word Match

Working with specialised language and technical vocabulary represents some of the biggest bang for buck if you’re in education and need to make sure your learners understand what you’re saying to them.


  • Most trainers, trades people, academic staff, and other subject area experts are so close to their own content that they constantly assume that everyone else knows what they are talking about. Actually, they don’t. We don’t. And your learners (or customers) don’t.

I’ve written about vocabulary a bunch of times including here most recently. But in terms of sheer practicality it’s hard to go past something like a simple matching activity either as diagnostic check on who know what, or as a fun way to engage people with new words, in particular specialised or technical words.

With that in mind, here are some templates to make your life easier. Just download and substitute your own words. I’ve pasted in screen shots as well, but you need to download the MS Word templates and make them your own.

How to use

  • Print on card, cut out, mix up, and get pairs or groups to work together to match up words and definitions.
  • Variation: Go for the three column approach once you think your learners are getting 95% correct on the two column. I’ve suggested separating out definitions from examples, but the third column could be any other aspect that you like, including images if you resized the cells of the table.

The first one is an example that contains 20 technical words from the world of literacy. It’s a test (if you’re up for it). How many do you know?

Otherwise though, just have a go with the templates and let me know how you get on.

The templates

3 col