Language and communication training for police interviewers: applying linguistics to professional practice

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


This paper will discuss the outcomes of a recent project completed by the authors, which involved developing and delivering training courses for police interviewers on language and communication. A key part of the project was to work alongside practitioners in developing the materials, in order to ensure both practical relevance and a sound grounding in linguistic theory. The project was funded by the British Association for Applied Linguistics. We held one-day sessions at three English police forces, during which we delivered training based on our research on both witness and suspect interviews (e.g. Haworth 2009; MacLeod 2011). The training materials covered a number of linguistic concepts, selected from our research findings and hence their (perceived) relevance to police interviewing, and illustrated through examples from our data. Topics included turn-taking, pragmatics, language and power, formulations (Heritage & Watson 1979), participation frameworks (Goffman 1981), language and identity, and audience design (Bell 1984; Haworth 2013). The emphasis was on providing practitioners with practical tools and skills to apply in their day-to-day work, with a key underlying aim of providing insight into their own linguistic behaviour in the interview room, and how this can (unintentionally) influence what is said by an interviewee. After each training session, participants completed questionnaires and took part in a focus group in order to provide us with feedback. In response to this, the training materials were revised before delivery to the next force. This resulted in a set of training materials developed and adapted in response to practitioner input, as well as a set of questionnaire and focus group data detailing police interviewers’ views on their existing skills in language and communication, and how they themselves consider that forensic linguists can best contribute to their practice. There were 52 participants in total, all experienced interviewers from various levels up to Force Interview Advisors. This paper outlines the training activities which we delivered, alongside the feedback each linguistic concept received. We discuss the challenges of the project, including the perils of going into a professional context as academic ‘outsiders’ and telling practitioners how to do their job. We present a summary and analysis of the feedback, including some of the unexpected outcomes in terms of what practitioners actually want from academics. Overall, the response to the training was overwhelmingly positive, indicating that there is a real opportunity for forensic linguists to become more directly involved in police interviewer training. Our longer-term aim of integrating linguistics into all police interviewer training in England & Wales is perhaps not too ambitious, and it is hoped to encourage others to conduct similar activities. References Bell, A. (1984) ‘Language style as audience design’. Language in Society 13: 145-204. Goffman, E. (1981) Forms of Talk. Oxford: Blackwell. Haworth, K. (2009) ‘An analysis of police interview discourse and its role(s) in the judicial process’. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. Haworth, K. (2013) ‘Audience design in the police interview: The interactional and judicial consequences of audience orientation’. Language in Society 42(1), 45-69. Heritage, J. and Watson, D. (1979) ‘Formulations as Conversational Objects’. In G. Psathas (ed.), Everyday Language: Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 123-162. MacLeod, N. (2011) ‘Risks and benefits of selective (re)presentation of interviewees’ talk: Some insights from discourse analysis’. British Journal of Forensic Practice 13(2), 95–102.
Period8 Jul 2015
Event title12th Biennial Meeting of the International Association of Forensic Linguists
Event typeMeeting
LocationGuangzhou, ChinaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational