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Laura Fadden

Forensic linguist Lorna Fadden uses linguistic cues to examine how language and law intersect.

Linguistic cues catch deceivers, not liars

February 19, 2009

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Can police examiners use linguistic cues to discover whether or not a suspect is lying?

SFU forensic linguist Lorna Fadden thought so, and initiated her PhD research with that thesis in mind. But her research results, based on video-recorded police interviews with suspects, led her elsewhere.

Fadden examined suspects’ intonation patterns, speech tempo and pauses between responses during interrogations. She found common and distinct patterns of speech for rejection, confirmation and negation, as well as for offers of new or irrelevant information.

But while she discovered that certain sets of speech characteristics accompany certain response types, the study didn’t establish how to distinguish liars from truth-tellers. Instead, she says, the study turned out to be an important first step. "First-time and repeat suspects behave very differently linguistically, so any study on deception is going to have to take that into consideration."

Forensic linguists study how language and law intersect. For example, they examine political discourse, legal discourse in courtrooms and areas where language serves as evidence in criminal investigations. Forensic linguistics is also useful in determining plagiarism, assessing whether oral or written threats are genuine or determining who may have authored a note.

Fadden’s current research examines suspects’ varying abilities to use and understand discourse strategies such as presupposition and inference. Linguistic-based analysis, she says, can be a valuable complement to the tools that forensic psychologists use for assessing competence.

Recently, she has undertaken case studies on the discourse behaviour of Western Canadian aboriginal suspects in police interviews. "This was prompted by my observation that when faced with allegations, First Nations suspects are more likely to deny, whereas Caucasian suspects are more likely to dispute them."
The difference, she says, affects how police proceed in an interview, which may later affect jurors’ impressions.

This semester, Fadden introduced the linguistics department’s first course in forensic linguistics. Students learn about authorship, statement analysis, police interviews and language-based deception detection.

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