Speaking English in America

As the story I’ve linked here indicates, the Supreme Court of the United States is talking English.

Specifically, the High Court is weighing in on an Alabama case where a Mexican immigrant, Martha Sandoval, sued the state for violating her civil rights by offering its driver’s exam in English-only. Sandoval speaks very little English.

From the story:


I’m hearing SCOTUS likely isn’t going to concern itself much with the English-only law and civil rights. Their focus is on determining whether the Civil Rights Act allows a citizen to sue a state.

But that’s not the part that interests me. It’s the whole issue of English being America’s language, and our societal responsibilities to those who don’t speak it.

I am conflicted on where I stand on this issue.

Our country is a nation of immigrants, and it is what makes us so strong, IMO. But it seemed like in past centuries, those who came here would maintain a similar pride in their native culture and language, but also bust their butts to assimilate into “being an American.” A part of that was learning English.

I’m all for pragmatism and common-sense. In areas where large populations of Spanish-speaking individuals live (southern Calfornia, Texas, etc.), it makes sense that governments, schools and the like provide Spanish wording as well as English.

But Alabama?

If I’m reading the aforementioned quote from the story correctly, the state would have to provide its driver’s test in Swahili, or Aramaic, if someone required it. If not, why not? If yes; damn, is that going to be expensive.

Maybe I’m simplistic, but I like the ‘Great American Melting Pot’ vision of America. That doesn’t mean denying your heritage or culture - indeed, celebrate it. Teach us about it. It makes this a better place to be.

But in order to fully participate in America as an American, being able to speak, write, and read English is a near-necessity. It’s fundamental to our effective interaction with one another as citizens.

I don’t support anything that keeps us divided as Americans, particularly where race and creed are concerned.

Yes, our country must respect and protect the civil rights of people like Martha Sandoval. I just think Martha Sandoval has a civil responsibility as well.*

Where does society’s responsibility (particularly financially) to non-English-speaking people in America stop, and the individual’s responsibility to learn the vastly prevalent language begin?
(*It should be noted that perhaps Ms. Sandoval has every intention of learning fluent English and is working toward it, for all I know. I’m more interested in the issue of our society setting up a permissive and expensive infrastructure that offers no encouragement to non-English-speaking people to learn the common language of this country.)

Well, damn, this one’s a pickle.

On the one hand, it’s ridiculous to assume that a large group of people will or should inconvenience themselves for the benefit of the few, as opposed to the other way around.

On the other hand, we should try everything we can to accomodate everyone who’s got a disadvantage.

But think of things this way: Ms. Sandoval is going to want to learn English anyway. Despite what everyone may say, it IS a necessity in the mass market. Driving is a privilege, not a right… a privilege which you have to earn. Learning how to speak English is (in Alabama, anyway) apparently one of those requirements.

Will they change the law? I dunno. Depends on how many non-English-speakers there are in the state. If there’s a lot, then they probably will. If there’s only a few, probably not.

So should we allow people to drive on the left side of the road, as requiring people to drive on the right has a “disparate impact” on British immigrants?


Actually languages like Swahili don’t get to be accomodated. Only spanish:)

I think we should all just learn Iroquois, and be done with it.

it is, but according to the article, it didn’t used to be.

(my emphasis)
no reason it can’t be that way again. i’ll agree that providing tests in every langauge in the world for alabama seems excessive, but spanish? that’s hardly exotic. it’s the second most common language in the US after english. not a big deal to make allowances for it.

check out this article from august of last year alabama’s hispanic population booming from the birmingham news.

official numbers from the Census show around 45k in the state, up 84% since 1990. in comparison, the population of whites was up by 7% during the same period. a guy quoted in the article says the 45k number for the hispanic population is probably closer to 100k in reality.

if you can live in a town with a 2k or smaller population and get by speaking just english, there’s probably at least a few hispanic communities of comparable size. no reason you’d need to know english. it’s a free country, right?

if the local community has a need for accomodation to use state services, they should be accomodated. they pay taxes too. those english-only laws are just xenophobia.

maybe they should force everyone to take their driver’s test in esperanto.


I’ll never understand why we Americans are so damned proud of being monolingual.

There’s a big difference between “being proud of being monolingual” {and to be truthful, it seems to me that those who move to another country, but don’t want to learn a new language are the ones who are want to remain monolingual) and questioning whether government services should be provided in languages other than English,and if so, which ones.

Whatever cranky old men say, official bilingualism works well in Canada. All government paperwork, at all levels, is available in French and English; at government offices all across Canada, you may be served in either language (well, English can be a bit of a problem in the bitchier parts of Quebec…). The cost is noticeable, but not terribly significant.

During the last referendum on sovereignty in Quebec, les pequistes never mentioned official bilingualism. Why? Because it works - francophones have all services available in their mother tongue, and the overall proportion of French spoken outside of Quebec has been increasing incrementally ever since.

Well, maybe we don’t want to end up like Canada. To satisfy the (large) minority that speak French, EVERYTHING throughout the country has to be labeled in English and French (by law). Even with this large concession to the Quebequois (sp?), a sizable portion of them still want to SECEDE from the country.

I live in Canada where we have two official languages nationally (English and French), where more than one province (but far from all provinces) have these two official languages, where one of our territories has three official languages (Inuktitut, English and French), and another of our territories has eight official languages (Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuktitut and Slavey).

It’s wonderful! I love living in a country where respect of differences is promoted. I’d like to see more provinces with more official languages.

Why? Encouraging diversity helps promote a sense of cultural self-worth through empowerment. Language rights can lead to the exercise of political participation. Language rights can lead to a sense of social identity and community. Language rights help people be who they are, rather than force them into imitating something which they are not. For the mainstream, promotion of languages and cultures through real empowerment helps everyone learn to think outside the box.

Is there a cost? Of course. The act of selecting one or more official languages tends to marginalize those which are not selected. Selecting more than one official language often offends the mainstream, who have concerns that they will be displaced. I don’t buy this position, for the thought of English being displaced from where it is already used by the majority is laughable. More than any language, English does not need protection.

Can there be benfits of English as a national language? Certainly. In nations such as India, where there are a great many languages, English is used as a common official language its being imported. I don’t think that this applies to the US.

I believe that a good deal of the momentum behind the push to making English the only official language of the US can be explained in terms of a wish to preserve nationalism. Economically, and to some degree politically and culturally, 19th century nationalism is being eroded (e.g. the EC and NAFTA). I suggest that in part the desire for English as the sole official language in the US is a reaction to a world in which nation states are finding it more and more difficult to remain isolated.

How much is due to just plain prejudice I do not know. Patriotic nationalism sometimes shifts to ethnocentricism, which in turn sometimes shifts to ethnic hostility. We sometimes see this sort of undercurrent in Canada, particularly in Alberta and Quebec, and sometimes see it in the US concerning Spanish. It gets difficult to distinguish the practical reasons concerning language rights and services, from the often disturbing ideological reasons. What concerns me is that because English is firmly entrenched in the US, particularly at the national level, a move toward making English the only official language is more of an inhibition against minority empowerment, rather than a practical necessity.

For example, why is Alaska trying to make English its official language, whereas in its neighbour the Yukon the legislature’s official languages include English, French and any Yukon aboriginal language, and in Yukon’s neighbour the NWT there are eight official languages, of which six are NWT aboriginal? Just who is being marginalized in Alaska, and why is there such a push to marginalize them?

If the US wants to promote assimilation, so be it. Although I find it repulsive, I am not an American, so who am I to suggest which way Americans should culturally develop. However, for my own country, I hope we can continue hold it together by supporting our linguistic and cultural differences. It is too soon to say if we will succeed.

Muffin, the inclusiveness is great, and I am biligual myself, English (obviously) and Spanish.

But the argument being made in the case referred to by the OP is that by requiring certain transactions with the government to be made in English(and only English) illegally discriminates based on national origin. I disagree with this argument.

I know that, in Texas, in order to be accepted to take the Professional Engineer exam, a person from a non-English speaking country must have a passing score on a test of English proficiency. There is (at least) one good reason for this: all of the codes, regulations, etc. related to the practice of engineering in the State of Texas are written and published in English, and would probably lose meaning if translated). By the argument of the appellant in this case, someone could demand that a state’s Professional Engineer Exam, Medical Boards, Bar Exam, etc. be administered in Swahili, Hmong, Inuktitut, etc.

Since English is the lingua franca (I love this- a Italian term referring to originally to Italian mixed with French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic, but in this case applying to English) in the US, I don’t see why it is wrong for a state government to require all business with it to be transacted in English.

Yeah, they’re different. One motivates the other.

There is a difference in enforcing a language test where it is necessary (any immigrating doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher would be required to sit boards in English to prove their competence.) However, driving does not require competence in English (NY cab drivers may be a moot point) as any one visiting the USA may drive on their home national licence. English speaking is not necessary and therefore if this is enforced, it is only being so enforced to reach another social end- assimilation by force- speak English or walk. Not a good policy IMHO.

I think driving DOES require a good working knowledge of English. Not all signs are one word or pictograms - here’s one I see all the time ‘Right Lane Exit Only’. Or how about ‘Trinity Mills Exit Closed Due to Flooding’.

You miss my point. If I am a non-English speaking person, I can drive for six months (or maybe a year) in the USA without a USA license. Therefore, English comprehension is not necessary to drive in the USA.

I don’t think people should be allowed to drive in the U.S. with foreign drivers licenses. Some nations have much lower standards than us, and even disregarding that, a large portion of our drivers education and the tests we take are on knowledge of laws that are specific to the United States.

I think that if driving tests are to be given in other languages, there should at least be a portion added to the test to make sure the person understands enough language to get signs like ‘Left Two Lanes Exit Only, All Other Traffic Merge Right’ and be able to navigate by signs. Not understanding that could be very dangerous, I see people who apparently didn’t notice the sign or didn’t understand it suddenly cut across several lanes of traffic and a solid white line divider at the last minute.

So you would make allowances for the second most common language. How about the third? Fourth? You have to draw the line somewhere. IMHO, the line should be drawn at english.

Driving itself may not require competence in English, but the written and road tests (and other goverment forms) have to be given in some language.I live in NY, where the written tests, at least, are given in a number of languages,but not nearly every language spoken in NYC. I don’t think a speaker of a language in which the tests aren’t offered (say Bengali) is going to think it fair that he has to learn English to drive,while a Spanish speaker doesn’t,and it’s just impractical to offer the tests in every language spoken in NY.

But see, many countries give us the same privileges - ability to use our U.S. drivers’ licenses for a limited period of time. Do you suggest that all foriegn visitors should have to apply for U.S. drivers’ licenses? And vice versa? If you can find me some statistics on the relationship between accidents and those durn furrin drivers, I’d love to see it. I’ve driven in foreign countries using my U.S. license (Czech Republic, Poland, Germany) and had little or no trouble getting around up.

This is a very good point - however, I don’t believe that the Spanish versions of drivers’ exams translate the little pictures of the road signs into Spanish. Anything you would see on the road in English remains in English, for exactly the reason you describe. And Spanish speakers still have to pass a driving test, putting all the knowledge into practice.

Not understanding that could be very dangerous, I see people who apparently didn’t notice the sign or didn’t understand it suddenly cut across several lanes of traffic and a solid white line divider at the last minute. [/quote}

And how did you know that these people were non-speakers of English? Did you quiz them? Couldn’t they have just been your average idiot driver?

I think it is generally a good idea for communities with large Spanish-speaking populations to provide government tests, forms, and social services in Spanish. I think we are seeing that more and more - it’s a recognition of the reality of the linguistic makeup of the country - anyone asking me where in I live in Chicago often gets the answer “At the corner of Poland and Mexico.” And for many immigrants, a driver’s license is an economic necessity for transportation to and from a job.

However, the debate here is whether governments are obligated to provide alternate materials to non-native speakers, and whether failure to provide such constitutes discrimination. And to this, I would say no. No matter how “nice” or “realistic” it is to offer tests in Spanish, a government is not obligated to provide these things in anything but the official language of the U.S., currently English.