Einar Haugen Lecture 2014: When your language becomes your only passport

Using language analysis to determine the origins of asylum seekers proves problematic, argues Professor Monika S. Schmid. Open lecture.

Illustrasjonsfoto: Wikimedia Commons

In this talk, Schmid will introduce the practice of Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin (LADO) as it is used across Europe.

She will show some of the problems and pitfalls associated with this practice and outline proposals to implement better quality assurance measures.

Language analysis to determine origin

It is commonly assumed that native speakers of a particular language or dialect are able to identify, when listening to others, whether these are also native speakers or whether they have learned the language or variety later in life.

Since the 1990s a similar assessment has been used by many countries, among them Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK, in order to determine, in the absence of other documentation, whether political refugees and asylum seekers have given a true account of their origins.

In such situations, the immigration authorities resort to a tool called ‘language analysis’.

Expert native speaker

Asylum seekers are thus interviewed by a government official with the help of an interpreter, and a recording of this interview is subsequently assessed by an ‘expert native speaker’, in some countries under the supervision of a trained linguist.

A report is then produced, which usually contains 3-5 examples of pronunciation, word choice and other linguistic features, and comes to a conclusion on the veracity of the asylum seeker’s claims.

The LADO approach: Problems and pitfalls

Here is a large body of work, which criticises this practice from a variety of linguistic as well as legal perspectives (e.g. Muysken et al. 2010).

For example, many of the countries from which asylum seekers typically originate are extremely multilingual and multi-dialectal, making the task of the ‘native expert’ extremely complex, and the speech situation in which the data are elicited is not conducive to the use of the typically non-prestige varieties which are being looked for.

Furthermore, the native status of migrants can be confounded or compromised by any linguistic experience that they may have had post migration through contact with speakers of other varieties (e.g. in asylum seeker centres) or language attrition.



Muysken P, Verrips M & Zwaan K (eds) (2010) Language and Origin. The role of language in European asylum procedures: A linguistic and legal survey. Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers.

About Monika S. Schmid

Schmid received her PhD in English Linguistics from the University of Duesseldorf, Germany, in 2000, for a PhD thesis on first language attrition among German-Jewish refugees in the UK and the US. Her thesis was published with John Benjamins Publishing Co. in 2002 under the title First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance: The case of German Jews in Anglophone countries. 

She has since held positions at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. Since September 2013 she is professor of linguistics at the University of Essex. Her work has focused on various aspects of first language attrition. She has published two monographs and edited several collected volumes and special issues of journals on this topic. She has received funding from various sources, including the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Dutch National Science Foundation (NWO) and Royal Academy for the Sciences (KNAW), and the British Research Council for the Social Sciences (ESRC) for her work. 

Monika S Schmid webpage


Published July 8, 2014 3:07 PM - Last modified Feb. 20, 2020 2:00 PM