Posted on June 10, 2019

Philly Judges Discuss Language Access Following Study of Court Reporters

Cassie Owens, Phildelphia Inquirer, June 5, 2019

Common Pleas Court Judge Kai Scott, thinking of courtroom scenarios, offered the phrase: “She was there for a minute.”

“A person who’s hearing it could think that person meant an actual minute,” Scott said. “But a minute, if you’re in the black community, could be an hour. It could be six hours. A minute is a long time.”


{snip} Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, plus a co-founder of the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, asked 27 court reporters to transcribe and paraphrase clips of African American speech. At the sentence-level, two out of every five transcriptions had mistakes.


Among attendees, Scott said, some judges considered the dialect to be more like slang or lingo. That conclusion contradicts linguistic research, which maintains that it’s a variety of English with its own grammatical system.

For example, with a phrase like “She steady telling everybody business,” the speaker is referring to a specific someone who is consistently talking about other people.


One panelist shared an anecdote that a witness had identified a man, but later testified that the witness didn’t really “know him like that.” In classroom American English, that might seem contradictory. But in African American English, it means that they’re not friends, or even associates.

The findings of the court reporter study have sparked debate over the possible use of dialect interpreters. Witnesses who speak nonstandard English dialects aren’t provided translators as foreign language speakers who struggle to testify in English sometimes are. Other American Englishes that might be considered for interpreters include Appalachian English and Pennsylvania Dutch English.


Scott is fluent in African American English and grew up in South Philadelphia. Perez hails from Germantown and grew up with Spanglish. Fox also claims South Philly, and pronounces ricotta as “ree-GOTE” and cavatelli as “ga-va-DEEL,” as she learned in her neighborhood. {snip}

The judges noted factors that complicate use of an interpreter. Some witnesses appear insulted when given a translator, and some jurors seem to get distracted by interpreters or appear less engaged.

If funding were of no concern, Perez said, then the ideal scenario would be to hire enough translators for Philadelphia’s diverse mix of communities, including those that speak African American English.


The authors of the study on court transcriptionists discourage interpreters.

“Most people who speak a different dialect of English tend to assume that they understand what they’re hearing when they hear [African American English] whether or not they actually do,” said Jones, who noted that translators also can undermine credibility. “In a perfect world, it might be reasonable. But I think there’s so many issues with it that it could potentially do a lot of damage.”

{snip} But with African American English, it’s difficult to say how much of the stigmas are (or aren’t) due to race.


Fox said local judges and lawyers are considering another event on how to correct the record when language is misunderstood.

And Qawi Abdul-Rahman, a panelist at the judges’ event, said a similar conversation for Philly attorneys is in the works. It’s a lawyer’s task, he said, to clarify that “a ‘four pound’ is a .45 gun, not four pounds of butter,” or even to explain nicknaming traditions.