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The Syntax of Justice Conference

Professor Janet Randall helped to organize The Syntax of Justice Conference that took place last month on March 30 and 31. The conference focused on the relationship between language and the law. One of our students, Gabrielle Leavitt, wrote about her experience attending the conference and what she learned there.

On March 31st, Northeastern University hosted the Syntax of Justice: Law, Language, Access and Exclusion Conference. The specific talk I saw was Linguistic Apartheid, with two speakers. One looked at how people entering the U.S. legal system that do not speak English fluently are at a disadvantage because of their reliance on a translator. The second speaker discussed issues in Haiti, where schools are taught in French, which few people speak, yet everyone speaks Kreyol.

In the first talk, Lawrence M. Solan outlined issues found in the legal system. These included an inability to understand one’s rights, poor translation with no access to the translator at trial, non-equivalence leading to misunderstanding, and loss of voice in court. One of the major issues with translators in court is that only the official testimony of the translator is put into the court record; what the suspect says in their native language is not put into the record. Because of issues with linguistic relativism, the translation into English may not be the same as the foreign language’s meaning. In addition, most courts require that there be an official record fully in English. If the suspect can speak some English, but is not entirely fluent, the judge will mandate that they cannot speak in English at all. They must speak only in their native language, with the translator offering their opinion on what the English equivalent would be. This could mean that something the suspect did not say in their native language is put into the English testimonial, potentially creating situations for false convictions.

In the second talk, Michel DeGraff discussed the issues in Haiti surrounding French and Kreyol. Schools are taught in French, but only about 5% of the Haitian population can understand French. Yet the entire population speaks Kreyol. Because of these linguistic divisions, Haitian schools have large dropout rates. Only 10% of those who enter primary school finish, and less than 1% have some college education. DeGraff argues that this division between the institutional language and the language of the people is causing a form of apartheid that blocks Haitians from education and equal rights. DeGraff works with the MIT Haiti program to help incorporate Kreyol into education. In a clip he showed us, children enjoyed learning in Kreyol so much they did not want to leave school at the end of the day. In contrast, another clip showed a teacher not fluent in French teaching a class in French. Essentially, the teacher and students would memorize French phrases with no sense of meaning or linguistic properties. However, when taught in Kreyol, teachers and students can use the language to hold a conversation, unlike French, where both parties rely only on rote memorization.

This conference was incredibly enlightening as to how linguistic barriers can affect many aspects of education and government. Participating in an institutional event spoken in a language you are unfamiliar with can be incredibly dehumanizing, especially when the event in question may determine whether you are deemed innocent or guilty of a crime. Societies need to work towards providing means of understanding to everyone, whether it is through a competent translator that also allows them to speak for themselves, or by changing the language schools are taught in to allow for universal access to its students.

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