Trials Heard by a Foreign Ear: A Study of Chinese Jurors’ Comprehension of English Trials in Hong Kong

Visiting Scholar Talks

Nov 21, 2022 | 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Eva Nga Shan Ng | Assistant Professor, Translation Programme, School of Chinese, the University of Hong Kong; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2022-23


Nicholas Harkness | Modern Korean Economy and Society Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and East Asian Legal Studies

In-person talk – Seating is limited. Masks are required for all audience members.

Studies in jury comprehension have hitherto mainly explored Anglo-American courts and focused on examining English-speaking jurors’ ability to understand legal discourse, particularly with respect to jury instructions. Such studies reveal doubts about jurors’ comprehension of the legalese in jury instructions and argue for the use of plain English to make jury instructions accessible to lay jurors. This paper reports findings of a study contextualized in the Hong Kong courtroom, where criminal trials in the High Court are routinely heard by local Chinese jurors presumed to have a sufficient command of the language used in court, be it English or Chinese. This study aims to test the validity of  the presumption about Chinese jurors’ ability to understand trials conducted in English, which they speak as a second or even a foreign language (L2), and to explore how L2 jurors’ comprehension might be further compromised due to a lack of proficiency in English. A random sample of local Chinese eligible for jury service (N=53) are recruited from the community to take part in the study, which comprises a demographic survey of the subjects, as well as a test of their comprehension of courtroom discourse using authentic audio recordings of two trials from the High Court of Hong Kong. The results of this study show an average listening comprehension level of around 41% by the subjects, with some attaining below 25%. The results also show that the subjects’ listening comprehension problems are not limited to legalese. Taking the Voice Projection Framework (Heffer 2018) as a point of reference, this study suggests that while discursive voicing is largely to blame for the subjects’ comprehension problem, as in studies with native English-speaking jurors, in the case of L2 jurors, the speakers’ physical voicing of courtroom discourse is demonstrated and perceived by the subjects to be a major factor in impeding their comprehension of the courtroom discourse. This paper argues that making courtroom discourse accessible to L2 jurors means more than improving the discursive voicing, but physical voicing matters as much, if not more. This paper also discusses the possibility of providing interpretation for jurors in need of the service to ensure equal participation in jury service by people randomly selected from the community and to mitigate the jury dilemma.