Master of Arts (MA)


Foreign Languages and Literatures

Document Type



Hispanics are not only the largest language minority in the United States, but also in U.S. prisons. An increasing number of primarily Spanish-speaking defendants face the legal and linguistic challenges of a U.S. courtroom. Constitutional and statutory protections have been put in place to guarantee that non-native English defendants have access to a court interpreter during their trial. Yet, under these protections it is left to the presiding judge to determine whether a court interpreter is truly needed. Thus, the judge has to determine if the comprehension of the non-native English defendant is “sufficiently inhibited” as to require language assistance during trial. What methods do judges use in order to determine the English proficiency of a primarily Spanish-speaking defendant? How good does the English of a non-native English defendant have to be in order to stand trial without an interpreter? Are the language needs of Hispanics truly an issue in U.S. courts? Would guidelines on how to determine English language proficiency facilitate the judges’ work? In order to answer these questions, one hundred surveys were sent to federal and state criminal court judges in four states (CA, FL, NY, TX). The analysis of the responses returned by the judges showed that language issues of Hispanics are an important issue in U.S. courts. In addition, the answers provided by the judges revealed that non-native English defendants must be able to understand “broadly,” or “everything” that is said at trial, and that they must be able to answer questions in whole sentences in order to be able to stand trial without an interpreter. With regard to methods that judges use in order to determine the English proficiency of a non-native English defendant, the data showed that most judges choose to appoint an interpreter, if one is requested by the defendant. Also, many judges ask the defendant directly whether he/she needs an interpreter. As most judges responded that the request by the defendant is sufficient for him/her to receive an interpreter, they do not agree that a set of guidelines to determine the English proficiency of the defendant would facilitate their work.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Arnulfo Ramirez