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Second Language Speakers and Police Interviews

The price of misunderstanding

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

As language teachers, we encourage our students to accept misunderstanding as an inevitable part of communication in a second language. After all, how else can we learn, if not through errors? In some cases, however, it is best not to proceed in the language where our knowledge is, at best, shaky. One such context involves interactions with law enforcement.

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by the majority of the world’s countries, declares that everyone has the right to be presumed innocent, the right to be informed about the charges against them in a language they understand, and the right not to testify against themselves. In many jurisdictions, the latter right is known as the right to silence. In Australia, England and Wales, and the USA, this right as well as other rights, like the right to a lawyer or the right to discontinue the interrogation, have to be communicated to interviewees prior to any questions that may implicate them in the crime in question. The purpose of this requirement is to ensure suspects know their rights and to protect them against police coercion. Interviewees who choose to proceed with the interview are asked to sign a document called a waiver of rights.

And here is the crux of the problem – how many speakers with basic or intermediate level of English know what waive means? Research shows that even native speakers of English do not always understand their rights. Their comprehension is affected by their level of education, cognitive abilities, the wording of individual rights, and the context of their presentation. The problems are even greater among vulnerable populations, such as juveniles, people with mental health disorders, and second language speakers.

There are many linguistic, cultural, and situational reasons that make communication with police particularly difficult in a language learned later in life. Some speakers may simply not know that they have legal rights and can say ‘no’ to the police. Some may be vulnerable to trivialization strategies that present the waiver of rights as a bureaucratic procedure, different from the loud, “You are under arrest! You have the right to remain silent!” we commonly see on TV. Emotions also work against second language speakers, in two ways. On the one hand, stress makes communication in a second language more difficult. On the other, non-native speakers are more likely to miss emotional connotations of second language words. Waiver, for instance, signals that one is no longer a witness but a suspect yet for non-native speakers it is a neutral word.

Ways in which we process words in second languages may also lead to misunderstandings. Take, for instance, the legal jargon, the key source of difficulties for native and non-native speakers alike. Experienced language learners, faced with unfamiliar terms, may try to determine their meanings from contextual cues. These cues, however, are often misleading: the waiver of rights, for instance, is often interpreted as a document that protects our rights, instead of a document that confirms we decided not to exercise them. An additional problem is created by words that have several meanings and thus instill a false sense of familiarity. In the case of right, for instance, one may first think of correct or the opposite of left, and in the case of waive of its homophone, wave, a good bye gesture or ripples of seawater propelled by the sea.

Another source of difficulty involves grammar. Even in everyday contexts, it is exceedingly hard for non-native speakers to process complex sentences, with multiple embedded clauses, such as "If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish". Such sentences fly by us, leaving behind a few snippets we have managed to catch. Yet reconstructing the meaning from these snippets may not be a good idea, especially if one does not have the mastery of grammar: appointed, for instance, may be misinterpreted as appointment, leading people to think that they are required to make an appointment with a lawyer later on. Oral presentation of rights may also be difficult because of the fast rate of natural speech. Hearing the right to have a lawyer present, non-native speakers of English may be able to catch only two consonant clusters, pr-sn and guess, from the context, that the lawyer will visit them in prison.

These comprehension difficulties may not be obvious to police investigators who are not trained in assessing language proficiency. Nor are they obvious to second language speakers who think they understand the gist of what was communicated to them. They may only become obvious in retrospect, when linguistic experts are invited to analyze recorded police interviews (I describe such a case in an article I wrote in 2008). The consensus, based on the research to date, is clear – in increasingly multilingual contexts, the right to an interpreter needs to be expanded from the courtroom – where it is already ensured in many countries – to police interviews, because the price of misunderstanding is simply too high.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a border patrol agent reading the Miranda rights from Wikimedia Commons.


Guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the USA (see here), by the international Communication of Rights Group.

Pavlenko, A. (2008). Non-native speakers of English and the Miranda warnings. TESOL Quarterly 42(1), 1-30.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.