Minimal Parameters of Linguistic Analyses for the Determination of Linguistic Background and Place of Predominant Socialization

Dr. Lutz Rzehak (Berlin Humboldt-University, Privatdozent)

A justified criticism of linguistic analyses for the determination of origin of asylum seekers says that a few key words and their pronunciation cannot reveal a person’s nationality or ethnicity. Taking this criticism as a starting point, my paper will define indispensable parameters of a linguistic analysis which would be as solid as possible from a scientific point of view. It is self-evident that the linguist must not only know, but speak the language(s) in question. At the same time one must recognize the fact that our linguistic knowledge of some regions of the world may be insufficient to fulfil all outlined parameters.

The concept is based on the idea that in such linguistic analyses the object of investigation is not the language, but the speech style of a person as shown in a given communicative situation like a recorded interview. In a wider meaning the object of investigation is linguistic behaviour. For a responsible assessment of the linguistic behaviour a set of criteria will be defined in a multilateral system of the following coordinates:

  • Biographical information given by the interviewed person: Which language(s) and/or which language varieties (dialects, sociolects) can be expected according to a speaker’s information about her or his place(s) of origin and socialization, ethnic belonging, social status and educational level?
  • Socio-linguistic situation in the claimed region(s) of origin and/or socialization: Which language(s) are spoken in the region(s) in question? Are there any distinguishable language varieties and of which ethnic or social groups are these varieties considered characteristic? Do these languages have different norms (classical, modern literary/formal spoken, educated colloquial, local dialects) and in which communicative situations are they commonly used? Are people in the stated regions of origin and socialization monolingual, bilingual or multilingual?
  • Communicative situation: Which language(s) or language varieties were used by the interviewer and interviewee? Did they understand each other without problems or were there cases of misunderstanding? Was the speech style of the interviewed person, possibly, influenced by the formal character of the interview? Did the interviewed person, probably, adjust her or his speech style toward the speech style of the interlocutor or vice versa? Were there any indications of feigning a false linguistic identity? Were there significant changes in speech speed? Did the interlocutors change the language or language variety during their conversation?
  • Striking features in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon: Which features are characteristic or non-characteristic against the background of the criteria mentioned above? Were these features observed in individual cases only or can they show an evident tendency in the linguistic behaviour? In which semantic context did these features appear?
  • Conversational features: Does the usage of idiomatic expressions, fillers, interjections or colloquial expressions correspond to the social status the speaker should have according to her or his biographical information?
  • Multilingualism and language contact: Which other language(s) or vernaculars may have influenced the linguistic behaviour of the interviewed person according to biographical information? Which features can be interpreted as influence of other languages on the speech style of the interviewed person? In which semantic contexts were these features observed? Which language can be regarded as the speaker’s first language if she or he used different languages or language varieties in the interview?
  • Temporal features: Are there any indications that the speaker really left the mentioned region(s) of origin or socialization at the time she or he stated? Did the speaker use or understand the names of institutions, technical innovations or other things which had appeared only recently before that time? Did the speaker use buzzwords or other ephemeral lexical items which would be characteristic of a certain period of time?
  • Verification of the results: If there are evident sources of trouble or error they must be mentioned in the report. It seems impossible to prove afterwards if the result of an analysis indicates a speaker’s real linguistic background and place of predominant socialization. The only way to examine the probable accuracy of linguistic analyses for a given region would be a series of tests with speakers who are not involved into an asylum procedure.

Regardless of empirical tests, the best quality assurance of such linguistic analyses is a proof that minimal parameters have been fulfilled which are accepted both by leading linguists and migration offices.

Letzte Änderung 24.11.2009

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