Helping police interview people new to the English language

Research by Elon University senior Cecily Basquin points to shortcomings in the way law enforcement gather eyewitness information from non-native English speakers, and she hopes her work – already being shared at international conferences – will lead to improvements in the criminal justice system.

By Sarah Collins ‘18

Try to imagine recounting with complete accuracy every detail of a crime you witnessed. Now imagine trying to share that recollection in a different language.

For the past two summers, North Carolina native Cecily Basquin has taken part in Elon University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program where she has studied the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies and misunderstandings between non-native English speakers and mock police officers.

The difficulties of interviewing someone who isn’t a native English speaker are obvious, she said. At the same time, opportunities to help police are equally evident.

Basquin presented her work in June at the international meeting of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. She plans to share details of the project early next year at the American Psychology-Law Society’s national conference.

The research comes at a time when the number of non-native English speakers in the United States is on the rise and police officers find themselves interacting more frequently with witnesses who could offer valuable information if they properly understand questions and law enforcement needs.

In addition, officers sometimes struggle to understand words that witnesses use due to pronunciation problems. “Certain words and concepts that are easily understood by native English speakers are completely unfamiliar to people for whom English is not their first language,” Basquin said.

For example, some non-native speakers may have difficulty distinguishing between words with similar inflections, like “tree” and “street,” Basquin said. Non-native speakers may also struggle to understand long strings of words that native speakers regularly use.

The senior Honors Fellow is now creating a list of techniques for investigators to use when collecting eyewitness accounts from people for whom English is a second language. Law enforcement should remember that non-native speakers are unaccustomed to common language and slang that native speakers take for granted. Officers can overcome this language barrier by removing non-essential words and by repeating themselves if necessary, Basquin said.

For complicated questions, investigators should elaborate by substituting words that may cause misunderstandings and drawing pictures to help the witness visualize the crime scene.

Officers can also ask witnesses to spell the words they are saying if pronunciation problems happen. Investigators who are aware of misunderstandings and have strategies to resolve them may be better equipped to question these witnesses.

Basquin’s research coincides with a nationwide effort to improve the accuracy of eyewitness accounts. While much of the current research focuses on psychological factors that inhibit accurate testimonies, Basquin’s work targets the country’s growing demographic of people who speak languages other than English.

Basquin conducted her research by analyzing videos of mock testimonies between native English-speaking “officials” and non-native speaking “witnesses.” After watching a video of a man stealing a woman’s purse, witnesses performed a basic task for 15 minutes. Once this distraction allowed memory of the video to deteriorate, the officials asked the witnesses a series of questions about the crime.

The Elon psychology major first became interested in this topic after learning about the work of her research mentor, Associate Professor Meredith Allison, who collaborated on the project with colleagues at the University of Victoria in Canada. Analyzing data from videotapes is particularly difficult, Allison said of Basquin’s project.

“There are so many things going on in the videos,” she said. “The actions of the participants don’t fit neatly into categories, because they don’t always do what’s anticipated. Cecily is completing quality, graduate level work by pinpointing her research on misunderstandings and this work is important to the field.”

The research would not have been possible without the Honors Fellows program, Basquin said. “The program puts a strong emphasis on in-depth undergraduate research, which I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish at a larger school.”

Outside of her research, Basquin works as a teaching assistant for an astronomy course and she serves as the vice president of the university’s chapter of the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority. She has studied abroad in Ghana and Italy and travels this winter to Malawi for a service-learning program.

A graduate of Ardrey Kell High School in the Ballantyne neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina, Basquin plans to attend graduate school to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology before pursuing a career in higher education where she can influence public health research.

Basquin is the daughter of Paul and Jennifer Basquin of Charlotte, North Carolina.