Reflection on the 4th European Conference of the IAFLL

A big thank you to Dakota Wing for offering these reflections the 4th European Conference of the IAFLL, Porto 18-21 July 2022.

On July 18-21, 2022 the 4th European Conference of the IAFLL was hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Porto, in Porto, Portugal. As the first IAFLL in-person event since 2019, the conference attracted delegates from around the world, and indeed, it was an exciting time to reunite with the IAFLL community face-to-face. The conference consisted of a pre-conference workshop on Aston’s FoLD, a presidential address by IAFLL President Dr. Isabel Picornell, plenaries by  Professor Janet Ainsworth, Professor Karen McAuliffe, Professor Luísa Neto, Professor Ricardo Jorge Dinis-Oliveira, and Professor Malcolm Coulthard, 22 parallel sessions with talks on a wide array of forensic and legal linguistic topics, a poster session, various social events, delicious food and drinks, and of course, a wonderful group of forensic and legal linguists!

The conference theme focused on rigour and transparency in forensic linguistics, and this was apparent across the various conference activities. For example, Dr. Picornell’s presidential address highlighted the role that we, as forensic linguists consulting on cases, have in explaining our methods and findings not only to triers of fact, but also to lawyers who engage our services as it is the lawyers who are initially responsible for disclosing experts and contextualizing our research question(s) and findings as relevant to the case at hand. This insight is important for (at least) two reasons: First, it speaks to the importance of sharing experiences of being a practicing forensic linguist and being transparent in these experiences for others to learn from. Many other talks (e.g., Professor Coulthard’s plenary and the session titled ‘forensic linguistics casework’) also discussed experiences of consulting forensic linguists. I find that in sharing such experiences, it allows us to think about how methods are applied and what types of research questions we can ask (and try to answer), and it helps identify research gaps. That is, in being transparent in our experiences, it helps improve the rigour of our methods and approaches. It also fosters a mentorship-like environment in which students, emerging scholars, and early-career forensic linguistic practitioners can learn first-hand about the realities of expert consulting. Often, consulting experts (especially those who have been foundational in developing the field into what it is today) begin consulting without training in being an expert witness, so to be able to learn from these experiences is not only a privilege but should also be encouraged to help further advance the field (also see the expert witness training supported by the IAFLL).

Second, Dr. Picornell’s talk reminds us to thoroughly consider the (often multiple and variable) audiences who we are presenting our analyses to. Unfortunately, as much as I like to think that everyone should be as excited about forensic linguistics as I am, not everyone is. Who we’re communicating our findings to, and how, is something that I considered as I attended other talks throughout the next three days of conference activities. It became clear that without being transparent in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it, the end result (our findings) may have little impact on the audience (likewise, as Professor Neto also pointed out, a lack of transparency may obscure access to justice). Thankfully, this conference was definitely impactful! Despite attending talks that I have little background knowledge of, I was constantly impressed at how accessible presenters made their talks (Exhibit A: Dr. Ainsworth made defamation law incredibly entertaining!). This ensured that findings were accurately conveyed and allowed for meaningful discussions from individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives. Being able to have such engaging discussions aids in providing presenters with valuable feedback (which was especially beneficial for me as I was presenting preliminary findings from my dissertation) and, as I witnessed on multiple occasions, creates opportunities for future collaborations. This was enhanced by the friendly and respectful environment created by the conference organizers (and the vinho verde probably helped) that fostered a community of scholars with a shared goal of advancing the field of forensic and legal linguistics.

The commitment to the advancement of the field was apparent in the diversity of the research presented at the conference. Presenters were from around the world, discussing legal contexts and data from varying cultures and languages, and applying a variety of theories and methodologies (actually, Professor McAuliffe’s plenary alone addressed all of this!). Despite these apparent differences, the conference was cohesive and emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of the field, which facilitated discussions with insightful parallels within and across sessions (no doubt thanks to the organizing committee’s thoughtful planning and organizing). Talks were aimed at both improving existing methods and our understanding of (socio)linguistic theories and applying various methods and theories to forensic and legal data. I had the opportunity to attend talks in topics relating to police discourse, authorship analysis, language crimes, suicide notes, and forensic linguistic casework. One session, on ‘Ethics, Standards and Practice’ was particularly interesting as the talks drew specific attention to problems in the field and made me reflect critically about my own work. Thinking of the future, I hope the IAFLL community considers the topics (and proposed suggestions) highlighted in these talks and the subsequent discussions. I also look forward to reading publications (in reputable journals that Professor Dinis-Oliveira would approve of) of the important work I got to observe, and of the talks that I missed that occurred during parallel sessions.

As a student and emerging scholar, presenting at this conference, hearing about innovative research, engaging in thought-provoking discussions, and meeting old and new friends was truly a valuable experience. A big Thank You to Dr. Rui Sousa-Silva, the organizing committee, and the volunteers who clearly worked long and hard to make this (long anticipated) conference the success it was. And also, a thank you to the IAFLL Executive, the plenary speakers, the session chairs, the sponsors, the presenters, and all the attendees for contributing to what was a fantastic conference. I’m pleased to say, in full transparency and with extreme rigour, that I had a great time and can’t wait for the 16th Biennial Conference of the IAFLL at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines!