Language and legal counselling. A linguistic ethnography of multilingual support in the legal assistance to asylum seekers in Belgium

Begin - Einde 
2019 - 2023 (lopend)
Vakgroep Vertalen, Tolken en Communicatie



Since the second half of 2015, Europe has faced a substantial increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers in need of international protection (UNHCR, 2015). EU law requires member states to provide applicants with the necessary legal assistance (information, counselling and representation), as a prerequisite to ensure a fair and efficient asylum procedure (EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2015). Though the EU is making sustained efforts to improve protection standards, it is remarkable how little attention is paid to the role of language in what is essentially a discourse-based procedure, where spoken and written discourse form the main input for the production and assessment of asylum cases (Barsky, 1994; Pöllabouer, 2004; Maryns, 2006; Tipton, 2008; Blommaert, 2010). The multilingual challenges specific to these legal service encounters remain underexposed, in policy practice as well as in academic research. Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Organisation (UNHCR) continues to report communication issues between asylum seekers and their lawyers that are related to insufficient language support.

Research objectives

My research project intends to examine and verify UNHCR’s concerns about language problems in legal advice consultations with asylum seekers in Belgium, through investigating which multilingual interaction strategies are employed (use of a lingua franca, non-verbal communication, interaction with a (professional) interpreter, …) and by looking into the communicative problems these strategies bring along. My analysis will focus on 3 different dimensions of multilingual interaction: (1) analysis of the multilingual complexity of the interaction (code-switching, phonetic and lexical variation,…); (2) analysis of the influence of multilingual complexity on the interactional structure and dynamic of the conversation and (3) analysis of the impact of linguistic diversity on the quality of legal counselling. Based on a deeply contextualised language analysis of legal counselling, I intend to formulate tentative advice on how the communication between lawyers and asylum seekers can be optimized. Therefore reporting back about my findings, in the form of feedback sessions, will be an essential component of the research project.



I take an ethnographic approach in gathering data; I personally observe the consultations, take field notes and record them (audio). During my first period of fieldwork (November-December, 2018), I already observed 62 consultations (of which 18 in lingua franca English, 7 in lingua franca French and 25 mediated). In a further stage of my research project, I also intend to interview participants in order to gain insight in what language problems they experience in their everyday practice. In the tradition of participatory research, I will then be able to adapt my research questions to the concrete needs of the informants. Once the data are gathered, I will conduct a discourse-analytical inquiry into the ethnographic data. The combined forces of the empirical data and the fine-grained linguistic analysis can result in nuanced understandings (Copland & Creese, 2015). The ethnographic approach might, as it were, open up linguistics, whereas the linguistic perspective can tie the observational insights down (Rampton et al., 2004). This methodology will take into account the contextual and micro-interactional nature of the data, while shedding a light on the macro-ideological dimension of institutional language.


Barsky, R. F. (1994). Constructing a productive other: Discourse theory and the convention refugee hearing (Vol. 29). John Benjamins Publishing.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge University Press.

Copland, F., & Creese, A. (2015). Linguistic ethnography: Collecting, analysing and presenting data: Sage.

EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014) Handbook on European Law Realting to Asylum, Borders and Immigration. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Maryns, K. (2006). The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. London: Routledge.

Pöllabauer, S. (2004). Interpreting in asylum hearings: Issues of role, responsibility and power. Interpreting6(2), 143-180.

Rampton, B., Tusting, K., Janet, M., Richard, B., Angela, C. & Lytra, V. (2004). UK Linguistic Ethnography: a discussion paper. Unpublished paper. Retrieved from:

Tipton, R. (2008). Reflexivity and the social construction of identity in interpreter-mediated asylum interviews. The Translator14(1), 1-19.

United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees (2016). UNHCR Global Trends 2015. Geneva: UNHCR.




Externe medewerkers

Ellen Van Praet

Jan Blommaert

Ellen Desmet

Rebecca Tipton