I have carried out consultancy work for a variety of organisations on policy issues relating to Roma, on community cohesion and on multilingualism. I have authored and co-authored policy reports for the Council of Europe on the westwards migrations of Roma and on Romani language codification; for Manchester City Council, Bradford Council and Oldham Council on support for Roma migrants and on a City Language Strategy; for the National Health Service on language provisions and access to primary care; on working with non-standard varieties in language supplementary schools, and more. I was consultant for the Open Society Institute and Next Page Foundation on the production of Romani language media and literature. As part of project outreach work at the University of Manchester I consulted local schools on the integration of Romani pupils and on recognition of multilingual skills, and worked with legal practitioners specialising in immigration and asylum to assess the reliability of government language analyses for the determination of origin (see below: LADO). From 2018-2020 I directed the forensic linguistic consultancy service MLM-Analysis at the University of Manchester, which provided support in a variety of judicial processes including criminal justice and immigration and asylum law. I provided evidence in appeals to tribunals that resulted in the overturning of over a dozen Home Office decisions to deny asylum status to applicants from Syria, Iraq and Iran and the granting of asylum status to them. Read extracts from tribunal decisions.
Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin (LADO)
What is LADO?
Language Assessment for the Determination of Origin (LADO) is a procedure applied by governments in order to help assess applications for asylum and refugee status. It is based on the assumption that an individual’s speech will invariably reflect their place of origin and can thus be used to verify a person’s clamed personal history.
How is LADO applied in the UK?
The Home Office commissions language analyses to determine the origin of asylum applicants. The reports are usually complied by private contractors. They often interview applicants over the phone. This is sometimes done within just days of filing an application for asylum. It may then take several weeks or even months for the report to reach the Home Office. The Home Office may then reject an application on the grounds that the language analysis report claims that the applicant is not from the city or region that they had stated as their place of origin in their asylum application interview.
How reliable are LADO reports?
Many reports are not very reliable, for the following reasons:
• The authors of the reports are often not experienced linguists; many of them don’t even know the language that they are ‘analysing’ and rely instead on informal impressions of native speakers who have no qualifications in linguistic analysis.
• A twenty minute recording carried out over the phone does not usually provide sufficient material to be able to determine a person’s speech profile (often referred to in lay terms as ‘accent’), especially if the audio quality is not very good.
• The Home Office (or analysts working on its behalf) often assume that a person’s speech is a clear indicator of their origin. This ignores the fact that a person’s speech can reflect different influences, for example the speech of their parents (if they originated from a different city), or the speech of other places in which they have lived, or that of people with whom they have spent time on their journey before claiming asylum, or since arriving in the UK.
• When asked to answer questions in an interview with a stranger, it is natural for people to adopt a more formal style of speech. As a result, it might be difficult to identify the person’s original dialect in the LADO recording.
• The Home Office (or analysts working on their behalf) sometimes claim that people are deliberately distorting their speech in order to deceive the authorities. But people naturally tend to blend in influences into their speech; this is true especially of vulnerable young people who have experienced trauma.
• Some language analysis reports make reference to scientific publications and are presented in the form of scientific ‘hypotheses’, but upon closer scrutiny these references may at times be found to be cited incorrectly, and the ‘hypotheses’ may be random and may lack proper academic justification, rendering the report much less reliable than it may seem.
For all these reasons, a language analysis may not be as conclusive as the Home Office assumes.
What are particular issues involving Arabic in LADO?
• Many of the applicants are young people who have been exposed to Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha) through education, media, and social media; in a formal interview with a stranger they will often integrate formal Arabic expressions and pronunciations.
• Some have spent time in other Arabic speaking countries, or with refugees and migrants from other countries, and contact with other Arabic dialects may have influenced their speech.
• Many young people from Arabic speaking countries are accustomed to style shifting and will tend to integrate elements from urban varieties; by contrast, much of the existing published documentation on Arabic dialects relies on data from elderly and rural speakers. Published data, even if it is available for the relevant locations, may therefore not reflect the reality of contemporary speech repertoires, especially among young people.
What are particular issues involving Kurdish in LADO?
• There is relatively little published documentation on the dialects of Kurdish. The Home Office contractors usually do not have any first-hand familiarity with the language and therefore they rely on few secondary sources, which are often misinterpreted
• The dialects of Kurmanji Kurdish as spoken along the border regions of Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq are often very similar and there are only very subtle differences between them; the dialects of Sorani Kurdish as spoken in the Iraq-Iran border area are also very similar
What can asylum seekers and their representatives do?
• The Home Office is obliged to provide claimants’ legal representative with a copy of the language analysis report; the representative should also request a copy of the recording on which the report is based since that recording constitutes the original set of data on which the report is based, and thus part of the evidence that forms that basis, ultimately, of the Home Office decision.
• Linguists who are recognised specialists in the relevant languages can sometimes help by producing counter-expertise reports: They evaluate the accuracy of the Home Office report by reviewing the materials on which it was based or by carrying out an independent analysis of the applicant’s speech.
• Specialist linguists who have worked at universities and research institutes are usually more experienced and have a reputation for research, and they can offer more reliable evidence than many of the analysts commissioned by the Home Office.
• In many cases, the cost of specialist counter-expertise reports can be covered by legal aid.
• Language analysis reports produced by the Home Office have in many cases been successfully challenged in Tribunals.