Creating monolingualism in the multilingual courtroom


  • Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer York University Author



courtroom discourse, interpreting, codeswitching, language ideology, us law


This paper contributes to research that has identified an institutional bias towards monolingualism in the legal sphere (Eades 2003, Haviland 2003), investigating how this ‘monolingual worldview’ (Ellis 2006) affects interactions between speakers of minority languages and courtroom professionals in New York City Small Claims Court. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and a data-set of 40 recorded arbitration hearings that include speakers of Spanish, Russian, Haitian Creole, and Polish, the paper shows that, while the courtroom itself is multilingual, all individuals besides the interpreters are expected to use one language only, even though most are multilingual to some degree. This ideology is evident in the common practice among legal professionals and interpreters to interrupt and discourage any use of English (i.e. codeswitching) by individuals who are accompanied by an interpreter. On the other hand, court users who avoid the use of English are frequently accused of deceit (‘pretending not to speak English’) by the opposing party. The court’s monolingual bias thus forces bilingual participants to act as monolinguals, thereby creating the appearance of monolingualism as the norm. It is argued that these practices inherently disadvantage minority speakers by preventing them from using the full range of their communicative abilities, and by making language choice a factor in the assessment of their credibility.


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How to Cite

Angermeyer, P. S. (2008). Creating monolingualism in the multilingual courtroom. Sociolinguistic Studies, 2(3), 385-404.