LINGUIST List 21.3222

Mon Aug 09 2010

Review: Forensic Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Eades (2010)

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        1.    Donna Bain Butler, Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process

Message 1: Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process
Date: 09-Aug-2010
From: Donna Bain Butler <>
Subject: Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process
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AUTHOR: Eades, Diana TITLE: Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process SERIES TITLE: MM Textbooks PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2010

Donna Bain Butler, International Legal Studies Program, American University's Washington College of Law, Washington, D.C.


Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process is a textbook written for courses ''in which sociolinguistics is used in an examination of the legal process'' (p. 4). The book is targeted at postgraduate and advanced undergraduate students who study language use in legal process context. A background in sociolinguistics or law is not necessary for students, as the author covers both at a fairly introductory level. This book is student-centered, with assignments and further research leading to a deeper understanding of language use in each legal context presented in the five-part text.

Published by Multilingual Matters, the book has a research-based, Anglo-orientation that does not exclude students from other legal and cultural traditions. The assignments and class discussion ending each section invite students from diverse societies around the world interested in situated language practices in specific legal contexts to contrast and compare these contexts with their own legal systems. By drawing on a wide range of sociolinguistic studies, and some socio-legal studies, this text uses sociolinguistic analysis to consider ''how social inequality is reproduced in the legal system and through the legal system'' (p. 12). Like Conley and O'Barr (2005), Eades believes ''that rigorous sociolinguistic analysis can help us understand the workings of the law and to see its shortcomings as well as its strengths'' (p. 12). In this way, going beyond descriptive language patterns to analyzing the role of language patterns in the workings of the legal process, the author assumes a critical sociolinguistic approach.

The overarching legal contexts around which the text is organized are the following: courtrooms, police interviews, lawyer-client interactions, informal courts and alternative legal processes such as mediation. According to the author, these are the main legal contexts in which sociolinguists investigate language use in common law countries such as Australia, Canada (excluding Qu├ębec), New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Eades (2010) points out that most of the research about sociolinguistics and law written in English is about common law with origins in England.


As previously noted, the book is organized into five parts. Part 1 discusses using sociolinguistics to study the legal process, with notes on terminology and the Anglocentric orientation of the book. Class discussion at the end questions the meanings of ''law'' and ''justice,'' asking students to consider how translation in other languages might shed light on similarities or differences from the English concepts of ''law'' and ''justice''.

Part 2 deals with courtroom hearings in 5 chapters. Students are introduced to issues involved in researching courtroom talk followed by a focus on talk in courtroom trials, ''the legal context for which there is the greatest body of sociolinguistic research (p. 19). Two chapters in this section deal with particular social groups in court: (a) second language (L2) speakers and sign language users; and (b) vulnerable witnesses such as children, second dialect speakers, and people outside the cultural norm. Following the focus on social groups in court is an examination of the relationship between language and power and how courtroom talk is part of wider social power relations and struggles. Assignments and further research at the end of Part 2 call for critical analysis and review, written research proposals, observation of authentic language use, and exploration of differences in court hearings with different legal systems, among other matters.

Part 3 deals with the context of police interviews in two chapters. The first examines (a) the ways that police advise suspects of their rights, and (b) the ways that police interviews (with suspects or witnesses) are summarized in written reports. The second chapter looks at police interviews with members of minority groups that include L2 speakers, deaf sign language users, speakers of Creole languages and second dialects, and children. A relevant exercise for both native and non-native English speakers at the end of Part 3 invites research and comparison of one-page summaries of information elicited in an interview.

Part 4 investigates language use in other legal contexts, starting with lawyer-client interactions in the first chapter. Attention turns to informal (for example, small claims) courts and arbitration in the next chapter, before moving on to mediation talk and alternative criminal justice processes (that is, restorative justice practices, therapeutic courts, and indigenous courts) on which there is little sociolinguistic research. The author provides questions and references for further research at the end of the section, aiming to foster understanding of how language works across alternative legal contexts.

Part 5 concludes the text by addressing what sociolinguistics can do in addition to showing how language does and does not work in the legal process. Key topics include expert evidence, legal education, and investigating inequality. Teachers (lecturers, professors) are invited to have students research and report on different studies introduced in the chapter using the many cited references. In assignments and further research at the end, Eades calls for examining the role of language ideologies in (a) ''judicial decisions in your country relating to the voluntariness of confessions and related issues such as suspects' invocation of their rights,'' and (b) ''the unequal treatment of a particular minority group, for example deaf sign users, children, or people with intellectual disabilities'' (p. 257). She gives examples of language ideologies that may impact the legal process such as the Standard English ideology as the only ''correct'' or ''proper'' way to speak. Research options for students could be a literature-based investigation or an empirical study, depending on students' educational context.


Investigating what (else) sociolinguistics can do is necessary in this age of globalization and continued social inequities. Under ''Expert evidence,'' the author introduces some of the main questions on which sociolinguists give evidence. Under ''Legal education,'' the author explains how sociolinguists have applied aspects of their work to legal education. Under ''Investigating inequality,'' Eades gives examples of the many ways in which the law can fail to deliver justice, or can fail to treat all people equally. Some of the assumptions about language which permeate the legal process and lead to unequal treatment of L2 speakers are expertly considered by Eades in the book's concluding section. Some strongly held, shared assumptions about how language works in western societies that are not restricted to law can be contrasted with other cultures, revealing a general lack of understanding of bilingualism and language learning.

Part 5 ends with the author asserting that ''sociolinguistic research and legal education has a role to play in exposing problematic views about language and variation so that second dialect speakers can access equality in the law'' (p. 256). The same, she says, ''applies to people from different cultural backgrounds whose different ways of communicating can directly impact on the ways they are assessed within the legal system'' (p. 256). To that, I would add that the same applies to students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds whose different ways of communicating can directly impact on the ways they are assessed in law school.

To conclude, potential readership for this volume extends across the social sciences, from courses on Sociolinguistics and Law to Second Language Education and Culture studies to Legal English courses that focus on authentic language use in a common law legal context. The exercises and topics for class discussion and debate are adaptable and can facilitate ''active student learning in relation to the issues, research findings and questions being discussed'' for masters and doctoral students (p. 20). Teachers can also draw on teaching materials made available from the publisher's website. In sum, not only does Diana Eades' textbook cross disciplinary and cultural borders, but also it bridges the gap between research and pedagogy. Bravo.


Conley, J. M., & O'Barr, W. M. (2005). Just words: Law, language and power (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Dr. Bain Butler is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland College Park. With a background in English for Legal Purposes, she has been teaching second language (L2) law students for 9 years in a law school setting. Her dissertation research describes how academic legal writing is a developmental and socially interactive process for learners as they move from the writer-centered activity of drafting to the reader-centered activity of revising and constructing knowledge.

Page Updated: 09-Aug-2010