As lawyers, we are competent, social, high level language users. We are comfortable thinking on our feet; processing oral language, extracting important information and verbally responding within seconds. We are well versed in reading reams of materials; from briefs of evidence to lengthy transcripts of court proceedings and High Court judgments written in legalese, all whilst turning an analytical mind to the contents.
We process our daily lives through language, we think in language and when you’re competent, it’s hard to understand or imagine what it’s like to not be able to do this. We know first hand that our clients can have lives that have been substantially devastated in a number of different ways, including from the impact of significant trauma or exposure to high levels of violence. These events impede language development processes, which in turn have an enormous impact on oral language comprehension and literacy.
Speech pathologist Rosie Martin is responsible for a pilot prison literacy project Just Sentences which has been running at Risdon Prison in Hobart. She strongly advocates for specialist intervention for prisoners with language deficits, seeking to address the link between oral language competence and patterns in criminal behaviour. The program has brought phonemic (speech sound) processing and oral language skills to the literacy intervention programs of inmates who experience language difficulties with tangible results.
As a speech pathologist, Rosie’s training has focused on how language is acquired, how we process sounds and what can go wrong on our path to oral language competence and literacy. Fortunately, the human brain is highly adaptable and with targeted intervention, we are able to grow skills in both children and adults despite enormous disadvantage. We often apply the mantra ‘practice makes perfect’ to extracurricular pursuits like learning an instrument or a new sport. Rosie points out that this mind set must also be applied to the skill of learning language, and it’s never too late to start.
At the ADLA conference, held in Hobart in March 2016, we were introduced to a case study, John, a young man in early 30’s who had been in and out of the revolving door of prison most of his life. He presents as socially competent and street smart, and could be described as a smart arse, smarmy or charming depending upon the view of the beholder. This outward appearance had belied the fact John could not read or write. After 10 months of working with Rosie, his written langauge comprehension jumped from that of a 7 year old to a 12 year old. This is particularly impressive when considering that the latter is the level of reading comprehension required to tackle the daily newspaper.
Armed with the knowledge that she can make a real difference, Rosie feels a significant professional responsibility to intervene. She is passionate about bringing this knowledge into the community, and into the legal profession. The link between language impairment and criminality is too strong to be overlooked, and the wider implications of this type of intervention are significant. The program presents clients with an opportunity for change, introducing a capacity to learn the skills necessary to successfully transition back into the community. In turn, Rosie’s work gives legal practitioners an acute awareness of the roles oral language and literacy play in offending, equipping us with the understanding of how to best support clients with language deficits through the complex legal process.