Sonya Rao

American Bar Foundation/AccessLex Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow in Legal and Higher Education
Chicago, IL

Sonya RaoI am a legal and linguistic anthropologist who examines courtrooms as workplaces, and courtroom professionals as communication workers. I write about the labor organizing of legal interpreters and the impact of private management of language services on public institutions. In my UCLA doctoral dissertation, Privatizing Language Work: Interpreters and Access in Los Angeles Immigration Court, I presented evidence that charts how to construct more effective, equitable working environments for courtroom professionals and linguistic minorities who rely on language services.

I observe immigration courts, where people work together to secure respondents' linguistic comprehension of proceedings, and legal professionals' semantic comprehension of the interpretation for the respondent. Respondents in immigration court represent a great diversity of linguistic cultures, as do those who interpret for them, represent them and review their cases. Such diversity is met with a variety of professional training, experience and perspectives on language, all under the pressure of limited time and resources.

Cross-linguistic courtroom communication is complicated and difficult work, but it is also crucial. For many individuals in immigration proceedings, linguistic comprehension of courtroom talk is a matter of life and death. Despite the efforts of many, the legal ideal of an invisible language barrier does not always manifest.

My research investigates how interpreters and legal professionals apply varying strategies to achieve understanding despite different professional worldviews. These strategies cross conventional notions of power and professionalism, as well as varying beliefs about what linguistic comprehension looks and sounds like. I examine this complex ideological landscape as working conditions, and explore the resulting impacts on access to justice for litigants.

My research has been generously funded by the National Science Foundation Program in Law and Social Sciences, the Social Science Research Council, the UC Consortium on Social Science and the Law, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

In Summer 2021, I began my position as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Legal and Higher Education with the American Bar Foundation/AccessLex Institute. I investigate the current state of legal training around cross-linguistic communication, and clinical legal education for working with interpreters informed by empirical knowledge about language and communication.

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