Non-native English speakers may be judged unfairly in interrogations

Non-native English-speaking Hispanics may be viewed as lying more often when being questioned than native-speakers, according to a study by FIU psychologist Jacqueline R. Evans.

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Findings recently published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology suggest Hispanics speaking English with very low proficiency are at a disadvantage in situations where their credibility is being assessed such as interrogations, border crossings, visa interviews and traffic stops.

“Non-native speakers may be more anxious because they must use a language they aren’t all that comfortable with while doing a difficult task,” Evans said. “They may also engage in behaviors like pausing or providing less detailed stories which can appear suspicious.”

It’s these behaviors that may cause suspicion and distrust by law enforcement officials and others, whether they are relying on common sense or validated cues of deception, when assessing situations. Evans points out another contributing factor may be their accents. Previous research shows people have a tendency to be skeptical of information provided by someone with a thicker accent.

Evans’s study included two experiments with a total of 206 participants who were asked to judge pre-recorded video statements of native or non-native English-speaking Hispanics. The participants of one experiment mostly self-identified as Hispanic, while those in the other experiment were non-Hispanic. The objective was to determine whether racial bias or lack of familiarity with non-native speakers played a substantial role in judgments of deception.

Results from both samples indicated that non-native speakers were viewed as more nervous, and as telling stories that made less sense, which are signs of deception.

“One thing I found surprising was that the findings were very consistent across the two samples we used,” Evans said. “This was the case even though the samples had very different experiences with non-native English speakers and different ethnic backgrounds.”

The study recommends special training for law enforcement and other officials in the behaviors that are natural and expected from non-native speakers. The training should include a list of cues effective in identifying truths and lies when the target is a low-proficiency speaker. Additionally, one possible remedy could be the use of an interpreter in interrogation situations. Though not yet tested, it could potentially reduce the stress-levels of the non-native speaker which would allow them to display less of the behaviors related to deception.

This research study was completed in collaboration with faculty from the University of Texas at El Paso and was supported by funding from the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.

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