September 6, 2016 – On Language Competency

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Tuesday.  I hope this finds everyone well after the holiday weekend.  Last week, I wrote to you about the importance of cultural competence and about making it a priority throughout all the services we provide.  In keeping with that theme, I want to direct your attention to a new study, “Language competence in forensic interviews for suspected child sexual abuse.” [1] 

The researchers in this study recognized that although “cultural factors may be relevant to child forensic interviewing in a variety of ways including:  language usage and fluency, nonverbal communication, the experience and communication of stress, the prominent concerns of children and family members, as well as numerous other issues, some of which may not have yet been identified,” Id., p. 52, the research on such issues is scarce. 

To that end, the researchers in the current study conducted semi-structured qualitative individual interviews with “[t]hirty-nine CAC forensic interviewers and CAC directors who work within CACs across the United States… [and] from the four CAC regions in the United States (Northeast, Midwest, South and West) with participants currently working in twenty-two states.”  Id.  Participants identified a number of overarching themes related to foreign languages and the use of interpreters in child forensic interviews. 

The themes are exactly what those of us in the field might expect.  For example, participants described the frustration they experience when “a child’s lack of English language skills was mistakenly perceived as a lack of cooperation by others who did not understand the importance of language competence.”  Id., p. 54.  Many also discussed the issue of “code switching,” that is “interviews conducted primarily in English in which children occasionally wanted to use a word from their other language.”  Id.  The concern is that children who are “between both languages” can sometimes become frustrated, quiet or angry when trying to think of “the right word” in English.  Id.  Moreover, they noted that “children who have limited English proficiency sometimes use formulaic phrasing when speaking English, leading their speech to sound rehearsed or unnatural.”  Id., p. 55. 

Not surprisingly, participants also expressed frustration that “interviews conducted through interpreters were often difficult and far from ideal.”  Id., p. 57.  Using an interpreter can slow the pace of the interview considerably, which is particularly problematic with younger children, who “have a reduced ability to tolerate a long interview in the best of circumstances.”  Id.  Additionally, there can be issues with the interpreters themselves – the mere presence of another person can be distracting, and in some cases, the interpreters create issues by having additional, sidebar conversations with the child or by their own reactions to the child’s disclosures.  Participants “reported that some interpreters recoiled when the interviews required using sexual words – precisely the focus of these forensic interviews.”  Id., p. 59.  In some cases, “interpreters were so overcome by feelings that they felt unable to continue their work.”  Id.

While there are no perfect solutions to these issues, this study highlights two critical aspects reflected in NCA’s Standards for Accredited Members.  The first, obviously, is the importance of cultural competence.  I applaud you, the CACs and MDTs, for the time, effort and devotion you have already given to this issue – and encourage you to continue these efforts.  Indeed, the researchers in this study “observed the sensitive way in which many of the forensic interviewers though about language issues:  we are impressed by their commitment, knowledge and determination to provide the best possible environment for interviewing alleged child and adolescent sexual abuse victims.”  Id., p. 61. 

The second is the importance of communication, both by and amongst the multidisciplinary team members.  The NCA Multidisciplinary Team Standard states that “a coordinated, MDT approach facilitates efficient interagency communication and information sharing, ongoing involvement of key individuals, and support for children and families.”  Standards, p. 12.  For a child or family whose first language is not English, the interpreter is a key individual and as such, must have the same benefit of open communication and specialized training prior to participating in the interview process.  Whenever possible, meet with interpreters in advance of the interviews, be clear about expectations and the fact that language of a sexual nature will be used during the interview.  If the research in this study proves anything, it is that preparation is the key to success. 

The researchers also suggest creating a set of guidelines to be used whenever an interpreter is involved in a case.  The guidelines should “specify best practices regarding the selection, training, and supervision of interpreters.”  Id., p. 62.  They also note that “a training video for foreign language interpreters of child forensic interviews is available for streaming free of cost through the training portal of the Midwest Regional Child Advocacy Center.”  Id

I strongly encourage you to download this article, read it in full, and share it widely with your team members and colleagues.  If our goal is to create the best environment possible for the children we serve, we must start with an awareness of and competence in the language we use and the way we communicate.

As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  

[1] Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children's Advocacy Center's Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO ™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO ™ is a service of the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC).  Please note that, because this is an article in press, to access the article in CALiO ™, you must go directly to the journal and then put in the title to have the article come up in full text. | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

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