Educational materials © for/by Peter L. Patrick. May contain copyright material used for educational purposes. Please respect copyright.
Linguistic Human Rights:
A Sociolinguistic Introduction
Language analysis and national origin in refugee/asylum cases
o Resolutions by Professional Bodies update!
A number of governments around the world make use of ‘language analysis’ in attempting to check or determine the nationality of people applying for asylum – that is, to establish the ‘true’ country of origin of refugee claimants on linguistic grounds. On its face, this seems to most laypersons a plausible idea. Many qualified professional linguists also believe appropriate methods can sometimes be useful in this task – though there are respected others who do not think such ‘linguistic identification’ is sound.
However, there is grave concern in the profession concerning the practices, the practitioners, and the conclusions being drawn in many cases where ‘language analysis’ is currently used. It is a new trend, and very little direct literature exists examining its validity – but what does exist is mostly highly critical. Clearly, the human consequences of the (mis-)application of linguistic analysis might be tragic, and the matter merits serious consideration. Below, several existing sources are briefly summarised, and links are given to the full reports.
Key words here are “qualified professional linguists”, “appropriate methods”, “nationality”, and “sometimes”.
o Professional linguists are generally qualified by extensive training in the field of linguistics, through internationally-recognized advanced degrees, and by years of practice including teaching at accredited institutions and publication of research in peer-reviewed journals. (I will use ‘linguist’ to mean ‘qualified professional linguist’ in this sense, as opposed to other meanings it is sometimes given, e.g. a person who speaks several languages.) Yet many of the people currently conducting ‘language analysis’ and delivering opinions for the consideration of government agencies do not appear to meet these qualifications.
o Furthermore, from the consideration of case reports, it is often not clear that valid and reliable methods have been employed – indeed, it is sometimes very clear that they have not been.
o It is apparent that both analysts and those to whom they deliver their opinions frequently operate with the naïve and incorrect notion that direct inferences can be drawn from language samples to nationality. Sociolinguists widely agree that this is not the case. It is sometimes possible to draw conclusions about the community or communities in which a speaker underwent language socialization – but this bears no necessary, logical relationship to their citizenship or nationality.
o Finally, even under the best of conditions, it is sometimes impossible to use linguistic evidence in determining the facts of language socialization.
A number of qualified linguists have been directly engaged by government agencies to conduct such analysis. In perhaps more cases, linguists have been appealed to by lawyers or other advisers representing people whose asylum claims have been denied, partly on grounds of language analysis. For obvious reasons, there is no central international record or database of cases or circumstances. Yet since the millennium, many linguists have become aware that the frequency with which language analysis is used in determination of asylum claims seems to be increasing – both within nations where it has been practiced for some time (e.g. the Netherlands), and through its introduction by governments which did not previously make use of it (e.g., the United Kingdom since 2003; see item in The Guardian).
This may be related to the
fact that a number of jurisdictions around the world make frequent use of the
services of private companies who supply analysis on a for-profit basis. The
best-known seems to be Eqvator in
Apparently many of the analysts are native speakers of the languages they are asked to comment on, but also “exiles who have not visited their native countries in years” (Erard 2003). Native competence in a language is respected by linguists as a legitimate type of knowledge, but on its own it is naïve and inexplicit knowledge – and it certainly does not confer any expertise in linguistic analysis. Translators and interpreters in many places may have their own professional standards and qualifications. These however rarely coincide with training in linguistic analysis, though there are of course individuals who happen to be knowledgeable or qualified in both. Most translators and interpreters, then, are not qualified linguists in the sense noted above, and thus not competent to determine language socialization by valid and reliable methods.
A number of qualified linguists, including several practicing in Sweden and Norway, have also examined cases analysed by Eqvator and concluded that they lacked “any scientifically recorded data”, did not “contain an adequate description of the language situation” in question, the analysts “do not have sufficient qualifications”, and the analyses generally “lack[ed] any value whatsoever” (Eades et al 2003).
attention to these issues has been sparked by a group of concerned qualified
o Of the 58 cases examined using language analysis, 48 contradicted the applicants’ claims.
o However, 35 of the 48 cases (72%) were reversed on appeal, thus indicating that
o Language analysis as performed is “clearly NOT determinative of nationality”
The authors further concluded that the language analysis performed was invalid in method, and based on folk views about language rather than sound linguistic principles. They found that members of the RRT themselves raised doubts about the method (as have appeals judges in other jurisdictions). Concerned that Australian use of language analysis might place it in violation of the UN Refugees Convention, the group called on the Australian Government to stop using the technique.
For linguists who do not believe that language analysis can ever be done appropriately in asylum claims cases, there is no further action needed (except possibly to oppose such practices of language analysis generally). For those who do believe it can be useful sometimes - professional linguists, who might be best qualified to undertake such analysis if anyone does so - there was a clearly perceived need to develop and articulate consensus on best-practice, through consultation among peers. All linguists, as well, should consider that practices of language analysis by non-linguists have the possibility to represent our profession, either positively or negatively. Compared to the severe human consequences for asylum claimants who might be unjustly denied, these are secondary concerns, but they are important nonetheless.
August 2003, at a conference of the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics
o In autumn 2003 a closed email list, consisting of several dozen discussants, was initiated to pursue and broaden the consultation. The focus was on how to arrive at and promote a code of best-practice for linguists. An international group of linguists and language specialists exchanged views on relevant principles and criteria for some 9 months’ internet discussion. The purpose of holding a closed discussion was to arrive at some consensus in a manner that allowed exploration of positions, without fear of being prematurely quoted. many of the 45-odd discussants have personal experience of conducting such analysis, typically as requested by applicants who had been denied asylum, but in some cases in response to direct requests by governments involved. Any qualified linguist or translator/interpreter who asked to be included was added to the list.
o In June 2004 we proposed and adopted a set of guidelines, for guidance of and reflection by both language professionals and concerned government agencies and NGOs. (I am not the author, only a signatory.) The title is Guidelines for the use of language analysis in relation to questions of national origin in refugee cases, authored by the Language and National Origin Group. The guidelines are now being publicised. It is the hope of the signatories that they will be widely read and discussed by at least two audiences:
o Linguists who have not yet been involved in such situations, but might become so, or who feel they ought to be informed about developments in their field; and
o Non-linguists (e.g. lawyers, administrative judges, asylum issues activists, members of government agencies involved in making asylum decisions, and others) who recognise that issues of language and nationality are complex, and who recognize the importance of contributions by qualified experts in this area.
o The guidelines are intended merely as a starting point in a new, urgent and rapidly-developing field of linguistic practice. It is a field which might involve any linguist on short notice - I have been contacted myself by people whose cases concern language situations I know nothing about, simply because they are desperate and came across my name, and I know of other colleagues who have as well. It is almost certain that more will be.
o The document provides the necessary context, and recommends a set of principles that we who signed it think most linguists will find entirely uncontroversial, even obvious. It does however touch on a number of bases that might not immediately occur to colleagues contacted about this matter for the first time.
o The document is also addressed to people outside our profession, giving an idea of what we think the minimum requirements and safeguards for competent professional language analysis ought to be. This is perhaps its most important function: it may serve as a touchstone and reference point for governments seeking to know how to conduct their investigations in a professional manner; for asylum applicants who have been turned down, in part because of what they believe to be incorrect assessments based in part on language; and for advocates who need information about the connections between language and national origins.
o The Guidelines have been published in The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law: Forensic Linguistics, vol. 11 no. 2 (2004). Four articles on the topic by linguists involved with such analysis appear in the same issue, see below. Information on this journal and issue can be found here.
Since 2004, several signatories of the Guidelines have moved resolutions endorsing the guidelines, or opposing unprofessional language analysis practices, to organized bodies of linguists and other concerned professionals. The matter has been raised so far with the organizations below. Progress of motions will be reported here periodically. To date, every vote taken by an organization of linguists has supported the Guidelines.
· A list of organizations of professional linguists who have endorsed the Guidelines is here: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/lhr/GuidelinesEndorsements.htm
August 2004 the executive of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (
the executive of the Society for Pidgin and Creole
Linguistics (SPCL) heard a presentation concerning the
matter. Subsequently, at the SPCL business meeting on
· A motion was put to the Linguistic Association of Great Britain (LAGB) in October 2004, and was adopted without reservation, endorsing the Guidelines and recommending them to the membership.
· The British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) considered a motion raised by Deborah Cameron in September 2004 (reported here). As a result, the Executive Committee endorsed the Guidelines in 2005.
· The Australian Linguistic Society, in their annual general meeting of Sept 2005, adopted a motion endorsing the Guidelines without objection (noted in Nov 2005 newsletter).
· update! The Netherlands Association for Applied Linguistics (ANELA) has endorsed the Guidelines (see their website under the heading “Taalanalyse bij asielzoekers”).
· A resolution is currently being prepared for submission to the Linguistic Society of America.
o Prof. Jacques Arends (U. Amsterdam),
“On the use of ‘language analysis’ in asylum applications made by West
Africans in the
John V. Singler (
Analysis and Determination of Nationality, ed. by
o All 4 articles in this section relate to the role of West African creole languages in the asylum procedure:
Using language analysis in the determination
of national origin of asylum seekers: An introduction, by
A critical examination of the use of
language analysis interviews in asylum proceedings: A case study of a West
African seeking asylum in the
The ‘linguistic’ asylum interview and the linguists’s evaluation of it, with special reference to
applicants for Liberian political asylum in
o Identifying the asylum speaker: Reflections on the pitfalls of language analysis in the determination of national origin, by Katrijn Maryns (pp240-260)
o Guidelines for the use of language analysis in relation to questions of national origin in refugee cases, drawn up by the Language and National Origin Group, June 2004 (pp261-266)
July 2005: International Association of Forensic Linguists biennial conference in Cardiff,
Diana Eades (U.
o Eric Baltisberger (LINGUA, Swiss Federal Office for Migration), LINGUA – More than guidelines
Prof. Peter L Patrick (U. Essex) and Nick Oakeshott
(Refugee Legal Centre), Problems, prospects and perspectives on language analysis in
o Dieke Rietkerk, The use of spontaneous and/or elicited loanwords in determining national origin/socialization in cases of languages spoken in more than one country: a procedure
o Oscar Nkulu (UNHCR, freelance language analyst), Supplementing the Language Analyst’s Intuitions with Empirical Consultation Work on Acceptability
July 2006: The biannual Sociolinguistic Symposium was held in
update! A workshop is to
be held on
How to contribute information to this webpage/project Questionnaire
I would be
grateful for any information regarding the involvement of linguists or
interpreters in cases of refugees applying for asylum in the
If you have been contacted about such a case (whether or not your expertise was used), please contact me; if you know of a linguist who has, please put me in touch with them (as several may have been contacted about the same case).
I am especially interested in cases involving independent linguists or interpreters, i.e. those not employed by a for-profit company (such as Eqvator), since these individuals are difficult to track down. However, if anyone who has been employed by such a firm is willing to respond, I would like to hear from them as well.
I will not
disclose any names of linguists without permission, or (even if I knew them) of
applicants. I am simply looking for information on the total number, and
breakdown (eg by country of origin claimed, or
disputed; and/or by language), of such cases in the
I am also interested generally in learning about cases of this sort outside the UK, and will gladly share what I learn with the community of interested linguists and others, subject to the same conditions of (non-)disclosure above.
My e-address is patrickp, with the extension @essex.ac.uk.
If needed, you may also print out a copy and mail me your answers. See my mailing address via my homepage link at the bottom of this page.
Finally, if you have useful information but are very busy, I will call you and take down the information by phone. Email me to arrange this.
Thanks very much.
For more information on refugee issues please see
Language analysis and national origin webpage
Last revised 5 November 2008