• About me

    I document the difficult work people do to understand each other in multilingual legal spaces.

    I 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 work, I search for evidence that points to constructing 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. These strategies cross conventional notions of power and professionalism, as well as varying beliefs about what linguistic comprehension looks and sounds like.

     

    While my ethnographic research focuses on language access rights and Immigration Courts, my broader theoretical interests include language ideologies, linguistic labor, and political economy under neoliberalism.

     

    Research is 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.

  • Education

    University of California, Los Angeles

    2013- Present

    Dissertation Title: Privatizing Language Work: Interpreters, Race and Access in Los Angeles Immigration Court

     

    Dissertation Committee:
    Paul Kroskrity, Department of Anthropology
    Norma Mendoza-Denton, Department of Anthropology
    Jessica Cattelino, Department of Anthropology
    Ingrid Eagly, UCLA Law School

     

     

    Fellowships and Grants

    National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant,

    Law and Social Sciences Program

     

    UC Consortium on Social Science and the Law Summer Fellowship

     

    Graduate Research Mentorship Fellowship, UCLA

     

    UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute

     

    UCLA Edward A. Bouchet Honors Society

     

    UCLA Department of Anthropology Student Research


    Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Award, UCLA


    UCLA Department of Anthropology Student Research Grant


    SSRC-Mellon Mays Dissertation Enhancement Grant

     

    Graduate Summer Research Mentorship, UCLA

     

    SSRC-Mellon Mays Pre-Doctoral Research Development Grant


    Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for Outstanding Honors Study, Finalist, Connecticut College


    Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship

    Selected Presentations

    “Language Access in Immigration Courts: Ensuring Dignity for Language Workers and Litigants.”
    Panelist, Law and Society Association Meeting, Washington, D.C. Spring 2019.


    “Handling Requests for Emergency Language Services Ethically: Professionalism for Linguists in the Legal Arena.”

    Panelist, Georgetown University Roundtable: Linguistics and the Public Good, Washington, D.C. Spring 2019.

     

    “Contributions of Life History to the Study of Linguistic Labor.”

    Panel Organizer, Co-Chair and Panelist American Anthropological Association Meeting, San Jose, California. Fall 2018.

     

    “Invisible Linguistic Labor in Moments of Calm and Crisis: Los Angeles Immigration Court and Beyond.”

    Robert and Mabel Groseclose Endowed Lecturer and Guest Instructor
    Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington Fall 2018.

     

    “Professional Cross-Linguistic Communication: Working with Interpreters.”

    Invited Panelist
    Annual Bouchet Conference on Diversity in Education: The Urgency of Civic Responsibility: Building a Movement to Leverage Scholar-Activism in the Academy. New Haven, Connecticut. Spring 2017.

     

    “Linguistic Labor and Language Access in Immigration Courts.”

    Invited Panelist
    Words Matter: Politics, Rhetoric, and Social Justice Conference, Bloomington, Indiana. Spring 2017.

    Research Experience

    Beyond my own research, I am presently a Graduate Student Researcher for Professor M. Kamari Clarke, a legal anthropologist whose work on human rights and international criminal law tribunals has impacts across disciplines. I have worked as a Graduate Student Researcher for Professors of Anthropology Jessica Cattelino, Department of Anthropology, UCLA. I assisted in research at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, working under Professor Noah Zatz, UCLA Law School. In these roles I have conducted ethnographic research, grant development and writing, and conference planning and coordination.

  • teaching

    Teaching Philosophy

    Individual life experiences with language are equally important to my teaching as to my research. In my years teaching, I have observed that students are quick to recognize instances of linguistic inequality in their lives and in the lives of those who are close to them. I have designed coursework to leverage these insights, prompting students to design original ethnographic interviews to create language biographies of individuals in their lives. While constructing analytic arguments about original, students engage in the social histories that shaped their subject's linguistic life history.

     

    My approach to teaching linguistic anthropology is to pedagogically anchor instruction about language in lessons of social inequality. Group class discussions locate the role of language within ethnographically concrete instances of familiar social inequalities. At the same time, lectures center on of the impact of social hierarchy on linguistic practice and structure itself. In this way, the same ethnographic examples introduce abstract concepts about the structure of language and interaction. The approach bridges a common curricular gap between linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology, as well as making connections across disciplines. Altogether, my course design focuses on revealing the connections between the fine mechanics of language to socio-political realities on a global scale.

    Teaching Experience

    UCLA Department of Anthropology, Lecturer 

    Language and Identity

    Culture and Communication


    Undergraduate Research Center, Graduate Mentor Summer 2016

    Mellon Mays Undergraduate Intensive Writing and Research Training Program

     

    UCLA Department of Anthropology, Teaching Fellow Fall 2017- Spring 2019 

    Language and Youth Subcultures
    Gender and Language in Society
    Anthropology of Food
    Ethnography of Communication
    Culture and Communication
    Evolution of Language


    UCLA Department of Anthropology, Teaching Associate Fall 2015- Spring 2016

    Language and Culture

    Culture in Society

    Culture and Communication

     

    UCLA Department of Anthropology, Teaching Assistant Fall 2014- Spring 2015

    Culture and Communication
    Human Evolution
    Culture and Communication

     

    UCLA Department of Anthropology, Reader Fall 2014- Summer 2015

    Culture and Communication
    Language in Culture
    Citizenship and Migration

  • Contact

    I interview a variety of language and legal professionals about their experiences with language, and I'd like to hear your story.

    sonyarao@ucla.edu