Sonya Rao


Sonya Rao

Graduate Student

Office: Haines 360


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Curriculum Vitae

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My research explores the many ways people work to understand each other in multilingual legal spaces.
I see language as a force that shapes our personal and political lives, but also one that frequently becomes invisible. I believe uncovering the role of language in our life experiences is one way to talk about power, social inequality, and human resilience.

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, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fields of Study

Linguistic Anthropology


Language rights and access; access to interpreters in immigration courts; language ideologies; language policy; political economy and linguistic labor; privatization of State enterprise; life histories; oral histories


Rao, Sonya. 2018. “Communicating in Times of Crisis.” Anthropology News website, August 16, 2018. link

Conference Presentations

“Pedagogies of Trust and Possibility in an Educational Collaboration.” Presented at the Mellon Mays Fellowship Professional Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, February 2014.


B.A. Anthropology, Connecticut College (2013)

M.A., University of California Los Angeles (2015)