“Speak English or what?”
Codeswitching and interpreter use in New York Small Claims Court

Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer

Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University
Filed May 2006
Advisor: John Victor Singler
Committee members: Bambi B. Schieffelin, Renée Blake, Diamandis Gafos, Gregory Guy
External reader: Peter Auer

ABSTRACT

This dissertation studies the language use of (1) individuals with limited English skills who participate in informal court proceedings in New York City and (2) the interpreters who assist them. Drawing on sociolinguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in three Small Claims Courts and focusing on speakers of Haitian Creole, Polish, Russian, or Spanish, it identifies patterns of alternation between speaking through the interpreter and speaking in English, and describes resulting language contact phenomena, such as codeswitching, code-mixing, and insertion. It further finds that interpreters vary stylistically in representing the speech of others (e.g. verbatim or in reported speech). Both patterns are shown to affect the structure of the interaction and to relate to speakers’ conflicting identities in the intercultural setting.

This dissertation is methodologically innovative in exploring data that differ from those typically studied: rather than examining in-group communication within a single community, it locates language contact in interethnic communication and compares speakers from different linguistic dyads in the same setting, where the social dominance of English is institutionally enforced. This methodology permits a cross-linguistic comparison of codeswitching and an analysis that ties microsociolinguistic phenomena of language use and interaction to the macrosociolinguistic conditions of the linguistic market. While community-specific codeswitching patterns exist, speakers of all four languages codeswitch to English in ways that suggest attempts to overcome the disadvantages of interpreter-mediated communication while also suggesting accommodation to English-speaking participants. For example, insertions of English lexical items in other language structures are often lexical repetitions of items used previously by English speakers, establishing coherence across turns made in different languages.

The findings of this study contribute to theories of language choice and bilingual identity, addressing the social significance of speaking English or not speaking it and examining the role of interpreters as cultural intermediaries. Further, they suggest that sociolinguistic investigations of variation and change in linguistically diverse communities should pay greater attention to data from out-group settings. The findings also relate to critical issues in language and law, forensic linguistics, and translation studies, identifying several ways in which individuals who communicate through an interpreter are disadvantaged relative to English speakers.

 

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. BCS-0317838. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. I’m grateful to New York University for supporting my research through the Dean’s Dissertation Fellowship.

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