Beyond the Sidestream: The Language of Work in an Immigrant Metropolis

This paper is a by-product of a study designed to focus on the mechanisms of competition between immigrant and African-American workers at the low-skilled end of the Los Angeles labor market. Language was, unaccountably, of barely incidental interest. But the employers interviewed talked about language extensively. Initially, their comments on language seemed relevant to an understanding of the proficiencies that employers demanded, and of the qualities they sought in their workers. It became clear from working with the data, however, that the discussion of language was sufficiently rich and novel to provide material for a story in its own right. In the end, this paper essentially confirms the conventional wisdom: exposure to influences outside the immigrant community propels the process of language shift. But the paper does suggest one revision: work need not be the domain of initial change. The massive entry of immigrants into the workforce, combined with the strangehold of immigrant networks over the hiring process, yields a type of social closure that yields linguistic accommodation with a twist as bosses and supervisors accommodate to the linguistic needs and preferences of the newcomers — and not the other way around.

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