Rhodes University academics are developing a new ground breaking course that seeks to address the classism and language based discrimination of our legal system through a new discipline called ‘forensic linguistics’.
Rhodes University’s Professor Russell Kaschula, NRF SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, Zakeera Docrat; a Law graduate and Masters Student in African Languages, together with their colleague Professor Monwabisi Ralarala, from Cape Peninsula University of Technology(CPUT) were part of the 13th Biennial Conference of the International Association of Forensic Linguists.
The conference was hosted at the University of Porto In Portugal last month under the theme ‘New Challenges for Forensic Linguists’.
Key Forensic Linguistic experts including five Forensic linguists from Africa attended the conference. Forensic Linguistics is defined as the application of linguistic knowledge, methods and insights to the forensic context of law, language, crime investigation, trial and judicial processes. It is about improving the delivery of justice by using language analysis.
To date, the African continent does not have a special unit on forensic linguistics and only a few selected academics such as Docrat, Kaschula and Ralarala are making headway in establishing the ‘new’ discipline.
Docrat and Kaschula presented two papers, the first co-presented with Ralarala based on a chapter entitled “The exclusion of South African Sign Language speakers in the criminal justice system: a case based approach”. This chapter appeared in the recently published book entitled “African Languages and Language Practice Research in the 21st Century: Interdisciplinary themes and Perspectives” edited by Ralarala.
The paper dealt with the case of S v Sikhafungana, where a woman from a rural village in Mount Frere was sexually assaulted by a neighbour in the middle of the night. The woman is deaf and is illiterate. When the case went to trial, her sister interpreted for her, despite the fact that she is not a sworn sign language interpreter and as such has no understanding or knowledge of standard sign language interpreting.
In the paper they ask how just can the law be towards the complainant in a case where the participants do not share a language of communication.
The second paper was co-presented with Docrat and Kaschula, based on Docrat’s Master's research looking at the role of African languages as a transformative tool in the legal system. The paper was the only one presented on African languages amongst the international delegates.
“Lawyers take language for granted, yet they use it every day to formulate strong arguments. It is strange that they are not sensitive to the issue of lack of comfort and exclusion on the basis of the very same language,” explains Docrat who is also a Rhodes Law graduate.
Docrat was particularly impressed by the display of the importance of forensic linguistics in a paper presented by a Brazilian expert, “It is about hostage negotiations where language is the biggest tool to seek a resolution. The expert spoke of her work of training negotiators in linguistics so that they may understand the correct use of language and tone,” she explains.
Papers presented were as diverse as necessary in order to validate the strong need for forensic linguists in the judicial systems of every country that seeks to be just and fair to its citizens.
Some of the topics touched on include, ‘the usefulness of investigative linguistic analysis in the Courts’, ‘how widespread misconceptions about language cause systemic failures in the justice system’.
The inter-disciplinary benefits of this profession have prompted Kaschula and Docrat to advocate for an Honours course to be offered at Rhodes University.
“We have set up a local network to help us compile recommendations for the syllabus and essentially for Forensic Linguistics to become a desired and highly regarded course by our students. We are moving away from criticising our justice system, but towards helping,” said Russell Kaschula.
Docrat as part of her Master's research has consulted some of the best and long-serving legal minds on the status and use of African languages in the South African legal system and how this could foster transformation. The network includes Rhodes Chancellor Judge Lex Mpati, Judge James Yekiso and Professor Pierre De Vos, a Constitutional law expert, among others.
Once the concept for the Honours course is completed with recommendations, the team will present it to the Department of Justice. The three academics are also planning to take the case of the assaulted Mount Frere woman forward and interrogate the injustice of her exclusion on the basis of her language of communication and disability.
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