Dispute Over Language to be More of a Barrier

Issues concerning immigration laws have sprung up like spring flowers over the past week. The newest outrage is happening because of an Alabama Republican candidate for governor, Tim James, who is declaring since English is the official language of the U.S., people who desire to live in Alabama should learn it.

James recently broadcasted an advertisement stating if he were governor, written driver tests would only be issued in English, instead of one of the other 12 foreign languages it currently offers.

He stated in the ad, “this is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

This is a bold statement by James that may sound logical, but a short history lesson may help explain why tests are not only offered in English.

According to The World Around You, Alabama did cease to issue tests in other languages in 1991, but after a case of a Mexican-born Alabama citizen failing a test because of her limited understanding of the English language and getting arrested for driving without a license, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the case to court against the State claiming it was in violation of Title VI under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The State lost, therefore once again issuing driver tests in different languages.

First, of course the woman would be arrested for driving without a license. It’s illegal, no matter what. If she failed the test, she shouldn’t drive, and if she failed the test because of her lack of understanding the English language, then isn’t it common sense for her to learn more so she would understand so she could drive and therefore avoid arrest? There are ways to do so without taking college classes or spending large amounts of money on a computer program. There are friends that could teach her. There are books she could buy, and libraries that have these books she could rent for free if she couldn’t afford to buy them. There are ways to make language learning possible if you really wanted to or needed to. If she was too lazy or impatient to make that happen and properly go through correct procedures to obtain a driver’s license, she has only herself to blame for her multiple arrests.

I do understand why people are angry at his words and think his idea is unfair to immigrants, but because of my own personal experience with the matter of James’s proposal, I am inclined to fully support it.

I have worked at one of the DMV offices in Michigan for the past year. Often people who don’t know much English, or none at all, attempt to be approved to take a driver test. If they are approved after showing appropriate documentation, I am able to issue a driver test in whatever language they ask that we have.

Doing so always bothers me for various reasons. In my reasoning, if the person cannot read or understand English enough to take an English test, how will they be able to read and understand road signs, pavement directions and other signals? They will be a danger to themselves and the people driving around them.

In addition, the Michigan written exams for other languages are 20 questions shorter than the English exams. So things English speakers need to know aren’t asked on the other tests, meaning those people are learning less about road rules in a country they are not familiar with. This has never made sense to me.

People who struggle with the English language are allowed to have State-approved translators to assist them when coming into our offices, but in the few cases I have personally encountered, the translators barely know more English than the person they are trying to help. This perplexes me even more.

I admit I have frequently thought what James stated in his advert. These people are in an English-speaking country, and if they want the same privileges as the rest of us – especially a privilege that requires large amounts of responsibility – they should at least learn the language enough to read and understand a written driver’s test. I would expect the same from myself if I were in a different country, and would be lucky to receive the same amount of courtesy. Yes, it’s not a right for you to have the test in your language, it’s a courtesy. One I sometimes feel is abused.

I could continue and go into a rant about how I believe this country is so hell-bent on being politically correct we can’t speak freely anymore without fear of offending someone and getting sued, but I’ll save it.

Back to the topic at hand.

Another reason James is using this for a campaign topic is because he also believes limiting people to an English-only driver test would save the state of Alabama money. However, according to The World Around You, violating Title VI would allow a termination of federal funding for the state.

So there lies his problem for the time being, and it will be interesting to see how James responds to it. In the meantime, I will continue to admire him for not fearing to speak his mind.


Sources: The World Around You, Yahoo! News,

About Karin

Journalist, singer, reader, movie fanatic, photography buff, GVSU alum, wanna-be-Brit, Crohn's fighter, Coca-Cola addict, animal lover, not a kid person, hater of winter, Michigander
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