Creating monolingualism in the multilingual courtroom


  • Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer York University



Code-Switching, Court Interpreting, Language and Law, Linguistic Ideologies


Eades (2003) points out that the legal sphere is characterized by an institutional bias towards monolingualism. This paper investigates how this “monolingual wordview” (Ellis 2006) affects interactions between speakers of minority languages and courtroom professionals, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in New York City Small Claims Court 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. A consequence of this unwritten rule of individual monolingualism is the common practice among legal professionals and interpreters to interrupt and discourage any use of English 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 (i.e. “pretending not to speak English”) by the opposing party. The court’s monolingual bias thus forces bilingual participants to act as monolinguals, thus creating the appearance of monolingualism as the norm. It is argued that the described 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.

Author Biography

Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer, York University

Assistant Professor in Linguistics, Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics Ph.D. New York University (2006) M.A. Universität zu Köln (1998)



How to Cite

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