How to elicit a confession – linguistic issues in investigative interviewing

“Listen, if you don’t answer my questions, I’ll put you in jail. This is your last chance of telling your side of the story!” – Utterances like this sound thrilling to the director of a police movie, but they certainly do not sound thrilling to their addressees. Your intuition might have also told you that this is not a good way of starting a cooperative talk exchange. But what is a good way of getting an interviewee to talk and how do they confess? Why is it called interview and not interrogation? Is looking for a confession the right way to go? I will spoil you so far as: No, it is not.

The previous questions are part of a research area that is called investigative interviewing, which forms a part of Forensic Linguistics. FL or Jurilinguistics is a relatively new discipline in the field of Applied Linguistics that focuses on language and linguistic analysis in the context of legal processes and criminal proceedings. It involves analyses of language in crime, where linguistics can help identify a voice or an author, determine the origin of a suspect, analyse threatening communications, suicide or ransom notes, disputed e-mails and so on. Especially in the context of police interviews FL can inform on the importance of language: Distribution of power, phrasing of questions, handling vulnerable witnesses, eliciting information – all these are part of the language use in a police interview.

This talk will introduce investigative interviewing – as opposed to the idea of interrogation. It aims to raise awareness of how a linguistic approach can be successfully applied in criminal investigation. After introducing the field itself, the talk will use a comparison between Finnish and German police interview techniques to show how FL can add to police work.

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