What is Forensic Phonetics? Phonetics can assist in solving crimes

Phonetics is the scientific study of speech. It is a branch of linguistics, which is the scientific study of language (not of individual languages, but the human faculty of language in general). Forensic phonetics is the application of expertise in phonetics to assist in legal and law enforcement contexts, and the extension of research on phonetics to topics relevant to the legal system.

The importance of expertise

Most people know a great deal about speech, in the sense they can use and interpret spoken language with extraordinary skill and subtlety. On the other hand, people's knowledge, in the sense of ability to describe and analyse the properties of sounds and voices, is usually very limited - even if they are experts in a related field, are knowledgeable about grammar, etymology or foreign languages, or are highly confident ear-witnesses. In particular, audio engineers do not have the expertise needed for forensic speech analysis.

Phonetics is a science, just like engineering, chemistry or psychology.

In legal and law-enforcement contexts, where people's life and liberty can be at stake, it is essential to be sure that all judgments about speech and language are evaluated by properly qualified experts in the appropriate branch of linguistics. Here is an article that outlines some of the pitfalls of failure to recognise the importance of linguistic expertise.

Rodman, Robert. 2002. Linguistics and the law: how knowledge of, or ignorance of, elementary linguistics may affect the dispensing of justice. International Journal of Speech Language and the Law 9:92-101.


Helen pic

About Dr Fraser

Helen studied phonetics and linguistics at Macquarie Univesity and the University of Edinburgh, then lectured for many years at the University of New England (Australia). She has given expert evidence in legal cases on an occasional basis since 1993.

She now focuses mainly on forensic transcription, but is also interested in general issues to do with speech and the legal system, including language analysis for the determination of origin (LADO).

Forensic transcription Transcripts of recordings used in evidence

Transcription is the representation of speech with written symbols, to provide a stable record of what was said. Transcripts are used as official court or parliamentary archives.

Forensic transcription is the representation of speech captured in a covert or surreptitious recording (for example via a telephone intercept, listening device or bodywire) for use as evidence in a legal investigation.

Transcription seems like a simple matter of 'writing down what you hear' but there is really a lot more to it.
Please visit my new website Forensic Transcription for comprehensive information.

If you are interested in the theory behind my work on transcription, you might like to read further under Cognitive Phonetics.


Fraser, Helen. 2003. Issues in transcription: Factors affecting the reliability of transcripts as evidence in legal cases. International Journal of Speech Language and the Law 10:203-226.

Fraser, Helen. 2010. Transcripts in the legal system. In Expert Evidence (Chapter 100), eds. Ian Freckelton and Hugh Selby. Sydney: Thomson Reuters.



LADOLanguage Analysis for the Determination of Origin of asylum seekers

The United Nations’ 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Asylum seekers who arrive in a country which signed the Geneva Convention, and are able to demonstrate such a well founded fear, can claim the status of refugee, giving them rights of immigration to that country.

Language analysis can help immigration authorities determine whether applicants’ claims they belong to a persecuted group are valid, or whether they may be misrepresenting their identity in order to gain entry to the country. In principle, LADO is a reasonable endeavour. It is well known that people’s lifelong speech patterns are shaped by their regional and social background,

However, though native speakers of any language commonly have a strong sense of confidence in identifying the regional or social origin of other speakers by their speech patterns, numerous studies have shown their ability is far less robust than their confidence warrants.

Like any forensic application, LADO requires high-level expertise not just in the linguistic and sociolinguistic patterns of the language being analysed, but also in methods for collecting and analysing language data according to appropriate standards, and presenting conclusions objectively, with proper evaluation of their limitations.

Language and Asylum Research Group (LARG)

The best place for further information is http://www.essex.ac.uk/larg/.


A few readings

Fraser, H. (in press). Language analysis for the determination of origin (LADO). In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics: Wiley-Blackwell.

Language and National Origin Group. 2004. Guidelines for the use of language analysis in relation to questions of national origin in refugee cases International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 11(2)

Seeking Refuge: caught between bureaucracy, lawyers and public indifference? Panel 6 The importance of language, culture and gender in asylum appeals (SOAS April 2009) has several useful papers including Peter Patrick's Sociolinguistic issues in language analysis for asylum determination.

Fraser, H. 2009. The role of 'educated native speakers' in providing language analysis for the determination of the origin of asylum seekers. International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, 16(1), 113-138.

Expertise in forensic phoneticsIntegrating theory and practice

The most important qualification for forensic phonetics is a solid background in phonetics - in most cases this will involve a postgraduate degree from a university linguistics department. However, a phonetics background in itself may not be enough. There are many issues that arise within the forensic context that are unlikely to be covered in a traditional phonetics education, and forensic phonetics has really become a subdiscipline in its own right.

A few useful links