"Did he have an accent?" Forensic speaker descriptions of unknown voices


This paper addresses the issue of forensic speaker description: cases where the voice of the suspect may form a part of a police investigation, but where no voice recording exists. There is currently no established reliable procedure for eliciting earwitness descriptions of voices. When dealing with earwitnesses, evidence gathering is restricted to the police asking for descriptions of the voice(s) encountered, which are then written down. There is no synthetic reconstruction of the voice. Much doubt has existed over nonlinguists’ abilities to provide voice descriptions, yet every day nonlinguist police officers engage nonlinguist earwitnesses in the process of eliciting linguistic data. This paper offers evidence that whilst nonlinguist ideologies of language are often at odds with those of the linguist, there are nevertheless consistencies and patterns in the

nonlinguist’s perceptions and descriptions of accents and voices. A case is made that it is possible, with the right framework, to elicit data that can be meaningful and make a contribution to the investigative process and that there is the potential to develop an audiofit


PhD Thesis - Exploring the forensic audiofit: non-linguist perceptions, conceptions and descriptions and evlautions of unfamiliar voices in a forensic context 
Summary of thesis:

Research in the field of forensic linguistics has in recent years advanced our understanding of the processes and practice of speaker identification, yet the area of forensic speaker description remains relatively under-researched. Drawing on research and methodologies from forensic linguistics, language attitudes and social psychology, this study investigates how non-linguists perceive and conceive of unknown speakers’ accents and voices, and how language ideologies and social stereotypes interact with these perceptions. The study presents two groups of non-linguist respondents with recordings of five speakers responding to interview questions in a pseudo legal context. The analysis considers three major aspects of the non-linguists’ responses: firstly, descriptions of speaker accent, accuracy of respondent estimations and possible mediating factors; secondly, non-linguists’ voice descriptions from the first cohort of respondents, and their presentation to the second cohort in the form of an audiofit framework; thirdly, the study compares speaker evaluations of voices against the findings of previous studies, uniting research on general speaker evaluations of accents with studies on the attributions of guilt. Interacting mechanisms that mediate these evaluations are discussed.


Through quantitative statistical analysis, the study finds that non-linguists from the south of the UK perform well at locating accents geographically and socially when provided with information through the vocal channel only, and that accuracy of estimations is further enhanced by providing an assisting framework. For description of voice characteristics, the study finds that many of the features that are salient to and articulated by non-linguists form a useful basis for the an audiofit descriptor of voice characteristics, and are enhanced by respondents’ consideration of possible soundalikes as a shorthand for conveying the salient characteristics. Finally, the study finds that the relationship between accent and attributions of guilt is more indirect and complex than previous literature may have indicated, noting that the common favouring or disfavouring of accents may be bound with unconscious evaluations of intelligence and aggression, and also with the voice characteristics of the individual being evaluated.

Strategies for Eliciting Language in Examination Conditions

There is a long tradition in oral language examinations of employing structured interviews with pre-scripted, fixed examiner contributions. This chapter examines an alternative format, the semi-structured interview, in which examiners adapt their test plans around candidates’ input, in order to elicit target language and communicative skills related to a chosen level. The Trinity College London Graded Examinations in Spoken English (GESE) are the subject of study.

Formally calibrated to the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2001), GESE examinations are set out in 12 levels, which Trinity refers to as ‘Grades’ (e.g. ‘Grade 1’ to ‘Grade 12’.) By analysing video recordings of 32 spoken examinations from the 12 GESE levels, this research identifies a range of examiner techniques that have evolved as a result of the examiners’ training and experience in adapting test plans to elicit target language skills. 14 examples of different elicitation techniques were identified from 374 minutes of recorded material. Of particular interest is the finding that contrary to what we might expect from oral proficiency testing interviews, direct questions are only used part of the time, with examiners adapting and developing prompts, creating elicitation strategies that represent a range of conversation patterns and roles.


The Impact of International Speaking and Listening Assessments on Primary School Bilingual Learning: Insights from Survey Research

256 primary school teachers from the bilingual Spanish-English teaching project in the Comunidad de Madrid, Spain were recruited to complete an online survey regarding what impact the use of external international speaking and listening assessments has had on their students and their learning, and how they as teachers use speaking and listening exam materials as a learning tool in the classroom. By utilising best practice in the design and execution of the survey, and by analysing the data using descriptive and inferential statistics, it was found that a large majority of teachers believe that the use of the external oral exams has improved learning outcomes, particularly with regard to their students’ confidence and skills in spoken communication. Correlating areas of improvement in the students’ English skills were identified. The teachers also reported that they used the exam materials for a wide range of purposes. A factor analysis of the teachers’ responses revealed that there were five purposes, only two of them related directly to exam training, the other three related to other areas of English teaching, skills development, monitoring and evaluation. These five purposes are presented here as an activity and support planning framework for the bilingual classroom. The impact data and activity and support planning framework should be of interest to teachers, education professionals and publishers, and to those responsible for teacher support and education policy decisions. 

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© 2017 by  Dr Mark Griffiths.