Course taster

Forensic applications of language

For the final part of the unit, we will consider how language is applicable in a forensic context. We will focus predominantly on children and young people who encounter the criminal justice system. You will have an opportunity to further explore forensic applications of language in the end of unit activity.

Researchers have often found a positive association between language deficits in early childhood and the development of later anti-social or offending behaviour (Jackson, 2017; Stattin & Klackenberg-Larsson, 1993). In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 60% of young offenders have poor language skills (I Can and RCSLT, 2018). High-risk young people (e.g., victims of abuse, young offenders) face an elevated risk for suboptimal language development (Snow et al., 2012) and frequently experience a range of adversities in their lives that can include; poor school achievement (Bryan et al., 2007) and problems in developing peer and family relationships (Whitmire, 2000). Unfortunately, speech, language and communication difficulties in young people are often not identified early and may instead be mislabelled as non-compliance and behavioural problems in the classroom (Beitchman et al., 1999).

Snow et al. (2012) highlighted that children and young people with language deficits tend to find the criminal justice system overwhelming, whether as victims, witnesses or perpetrators of crime. Child victims or witnesses, for example, may have great difficulty in recounting events in a courtroom, especially when these relate to traumatic offences such as child abuse. Moreover, Snow and Powell (2005) found that compared to their non-offending peers, adolescent offenders often display difficulties in understanding and using non-literal linguistic devices (e.g., idioms and metaphors) with tendencies to decode the literal rather than the underlying abstract meaning of what is spoken. During police interviews, young people may also find it difficult to use narrative discourse to convey information effectively, resulting in an inability to explain themselves clearly and answer questions. When these speech impairments are accompanied by poor body language (e.g., lack of eye contact, shrugging shoulders), it can lead to a negative impression among criminal justice professionals whereby the young person is wrongly perceived as uncooperative and disrespectful of authority (Snow & Powell, 2004). Consequently, these young people may be further marginalised and stigmatised within the criminal justice system, leading to poorer social outcomes for the offender such as tougher sentences.

These negative impacts also extend to the broader population of offenders with language and communication deficits, particularly among those with learning disabilities and learning difficulties (Talbot, 2009). Solan and Tiersma (2005) highlight, for example, that offenders with impaired language and communication do not always understand their legal rights and may find it difficult to instruct their lawyer. Additionally, they may be unable to follow court proceedings and understand legal terminology. While in prison, individuals with learning disabilities and learning difficulties often experience greater levels of social exclusion, do not always receive appropriate support and may be prevented from accessing rehabilitation programmes to address their offending behaviour (Talbot, 2009; Winstanley et al., 2019). It is clear, therefore, that offenders with impaired speech, language and communication often find the criminal justice system very difficult to navigate.

Further reading

You may wish to read the following article available from the online reading list for this module (The link to the online reading link is not available in this course taster). It provides a more comprehensive discussion of the forensic implications of language competence in young offenders and young people identified as victims of maltreatment. The article also highlights links between language development and other important developmental areas discussed in this module, notably attachment relationships and theory of mind. This will help to further consolidate your understanding of how these different factors interact to influence human development and offending behaviour.

Snow, P. C., Powell, M. B., & Sanger, D. D. (2012). Oral language competence, young speakers, and the law. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43(4), 496–506.