Driving in English Only?

Drivers who obtained licenses from non-English exams are a threat to public safety, according to K. C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, an English advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia. McAlpin made the statement in support of a lawsuit that would prevent Alabama from offering driver’s license tests in languages other than English.

I took my first driver’s license test in Italian more than thirty years ago in New Jersey.

I was not a threat to other motorists when I began driving because of my limited English or because I took the test in Italian.

The fact is that I have been lucky not to have any serious accidents in my entire driving record. Language has little to do with it in spite of the fact that I speak four of them.

McAlpin believes that people who took the tests in a foreign language cannot read he road signs.

Of course, that is not true. Driver’s license tests in foreign language include the rules of the road according to state laws but also include reading and comprehension of English language signs.

McAlpin has probably never looked at tests in foreign languages so he is shooting from the hip when he adds that “you can’t print road signs in 14 languages.”

You don’t have to.

McAlpin’s logic might apply to foreign tourists who drive on America’s roads and quite likely took their driver’s tests in languages other than English.

Does he want declare international driver’s licenses illegal in America also?

The lawsuit in question was filed in Alabama by five members of ProEnglish, which the advocacy group is supporting. If successful, it would mean that the Alabama immigrant population would not be able to take the tests in the 14 languages it’s given. These include Spanish, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Vietnamese, American Sign Language, etc.

Why do Alabama and many other American states give driver’s license tests in a variety of languages?

The answers are pretty obvious.  We want all drivers to be tested so that they know the rules of the road. One need not know the English language to drive an automobile.

By giving immigrants the opportunity to take a driver’s license test in their language, we make it easy for them to integrate.

The ability to drive a car means transportation, which allows people to go to work, shop, take their kids to school, and also go to school themselves and learn English.

The lack of driver’s licenses would mean being stuck in a neighborhood where English may not be widely spoken and little interaction with Americans.

One would think that ProEnglish advocates, who claim to want people to learn English, would favor concepts and approaches, which help them learning the language of the country.

There are several national groups who claim to defend the English language in the US. Some of these groups even make some effort at encouraging immigrants to learn English.

Yet, they all have one thing in common which is most evident in the history in US English, from which ProEnglish spun off—their anti-immigrant stance which sometimes comes to the surface.

It did so when John Tanton, now on the board of ProEnglish, was the chairman of US English and wrote repugnant statements against Hispanics and Catholics.

Walter Cronkite who was on the board of US English resigned in embarrassment in 1998.

Conservative Linda Chavez, who eventually became chair of US English, also resigned because of the group’s anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic leanings.

There is no doubt that knowledge of English is valuable and indeed indispensable to succeed in the US.

However, giving immigrants driver’s license tests in their languages is not a threat to the English language or Americans. The ability to drive legally and the immigrants’ languages are an asset for our country in a global world which is getting smaller and smaller.

Domenico Maceri PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.