Common law does not require people are given access to an interpreter but legal cases show that use of interpreters does not always lead to an accurate and fair presentation of evidence in court. This is especially problematic for Indigenous Australians who speak diverse languages that don’t necessarily translate well through the mouths of a poorly trained interpreter.
Social science researchers already challenge the criminal justice system which disproportionately incarcerates Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous Australians make up 86% of prisoners. In many cases they are jailed for drug offences or petty crimes like driving without a licence (though without reckless endangerment) in remote areas where there is no adequate public transport or access to nearby social services.
Lack of universal access to quality interpreters is just one way to make the criminal justice system less unfair, though working to eliminate unnecessary policing of Indigenous Australians requires broader social reforms.
Art by Adnate in Melbourne. Photo by Zuleyka Zevallos
Why are spelling conventions in English so peculiar, such as with the silent “b” in “doubt”? It’s due to the influence of Latin culture and symbolic capital. Symbolic capital describes the immaterial resources that people draw on in order to maintain or improve their social status. Language, literature, the arts and other forms of culture act as symbolic capital that signal our belonging to a particular class. Language and culture are also used to elevate the authority and economic achievements of dominant groups.
Throughout history being able to speak and write Latin has been a sign of being upper class. Latin was also important to the religious elites who acted as scribes that documented culture and history.
Latin drew on French language rules as French grew out of Latin. The French word for doubt has a “b” which is why Latin scribes used it when they started to catalogue English in written texts. English is a Germanic language that was spoken by the masses long before it was written down and so the elites reflected their own linguistic norms on the English written form rather than following the spoken rules.
This Chalking Points video documents this history on brief.
Being bilingual opens up new worlds to speakers. It also appears to delay the onset of dementia…
In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.
The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:
In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.
In other words, thanks in large part to the study’s cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.
What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:
The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.
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How do you like your rappers? Aged two and super deliciously cute? Here you go.
Cuteness aside, Valerie Chepp provides a very useful postmodernist sociological analysis of this clip. This discourse analysis shows how the social dynamics of learning language, such as emulating patterns of speech, gestures and inflections of emotion, can occur prior to learning the meaning of words.
This home video of 2-year-old Khaliyl Iloyi rapping with his father can be used to illustrate Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) concepts of langue and parole which, for Saussure, comprise a larger system of signs he calls language. Langue entails the total system of possibilities; it is the abstract set of structured rules that a given speech community internalizes. Parole, on the other hand, consists of individual speech acts and the message contained within them. Saussure argues that individuals don’t pick and choose what belongs to langue or parole; rather, langue is social (in that it operates according to a set of rules that are in place before and after our existence) and parole is individual. Another way Saussure understood this distinction was that langue is a static, synchronic system while parole is diachronic and contingent. This video clip illustrates how, even at age two, Khaliyl understands the basic underlying structure of language (langue), even if he has yet to master the meaning of individual speech acts (parole). He is engaging in the social enterprise of langue in that he has internalized the abstract rules of language for his speech community, even though a meaningful message has yet to be put into practice (parole).
Essentially, Chepp points out that learning how to act our speech patterns is just as critical as knowing how to speak. The way humans exchange verbal and non-verbal signs is central to the transmission of culture and belonging. The child in the video, Khaliyl Iloyi, comes from a musical family. He has learned how to mimic the behaviourisms of his rapper father even though he cannot speak. These non-verbal cues – what Bourdieu calls habitus, are part of the embodiment of culture and history. We learn how to act out our culture before we really understand verbal meaning. This is why the way we behave as adults seems natural and normal – because we’ve internalised how we are supposed to behave as infants, and we learn to take this for granted.