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This Is Alabama. We Speak English.

Tim James’ ad promising that, if he’s elected governor, he’ll save the citizens of Alabama some money by cutting out foreign language drivers’ license exams under the theory, “This is Alabama.  We speak English.  If you want to live here, learn it” is making the rounds.

Like my fellow Alabama expat, Stacy McCain, I get the appeal of the ad. Frankly, ten years ago, I’d have been part of the target audience.   There’s a visceral instinct to resent those living among you who won’t learn the language and, yes, there’s some tangential logic to “the street signs are also in English.”

But, as Steven Taylor notes, the practicalities work against James’ position.  First, “if you don’t have tests that your residents can understand, they aren’t going to wait to learn English before they can take a driver’s license test, rather they are simply going to drive without a license.”  Second, “if the state already has the tests translated into other languages, exactly how much money is going to be saved by giving the test only in English?  The major cost of something like this is the translation process, not making copies of the already translated texts.”

Further, as Kristopher Vilamaa points out, the legality of Alabama’s English only law and this application of it is dubious.  The state could well lose transportation funding over the issue.

I’m all for doing everything we can to entice U.S. residents to learn English.  It’s in their interest and ours.  But, given that we do in fact have a very large immigrant population, it’s just silly and mean not to make some reasonable accommodation for the transition.

And, yes, this sort of thing reinforces the negative stereotypes people have about Alabama.  So, if one’s desire is to demonstrate one’s acumen as a business man, it’s probably not wise to run on a platform of making the state less attractive to companies choosing where to locate.

PS:  When you’ve got MSNBC hosts and people from Mississippi making fun of you, it’s bad.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. As another Alabama ex-pat, I second everything that James said.

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  2. john personna says:

    I think one attraction of these issues is that they are “easy.” It’s easy to have an opinion on language, and you can feel good about it, especially if you don’t do that cost-benefit analysis.

    Contrast with the hard problems:

    The latest data shows that 39.4 million Americans are receiving food stamps. One of the biggest spins you have heard on the media since 2008 is that this is nowhere near as bad as the Depression, after all, where are the bread lines? Well of course there are no bread lines, this is 2010. Food stamps are the modern equivalent. It is a convenient way to keep the suffering and plight of 13% of the American citizenry out of sight and out of mind.

    That from a rant I don’t totally believe, but partly …

    so as long as we reassert English we can all feel good again.

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  3. Herb says:

    If he’s such a businessman, he should be encouraging his citizens to learn some of those 12 languages.

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  4. [...] h/t:  James@OTB. [...]

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  5. [...] Also via OTB, this jackass who will probably win the Alabama Governorship based on this bit of idiocy: [...]

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s not about practicality or saving money or legality. It’s about identifying himself with bigots. It’s the equivalent of waving a Confederate flag and yelling “Yee hah!” He doesn’t give a damn one way or the other about the issue, he’s solidifying the bubba vote.

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  7. Richard Bottoms says:

    And, yes, this sort of thing reinforces the negative stereotypes people have about Alabama.

    It’s tough trying to outdo Mississippi as the armpit of the nation.

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  8. Anderson says:

    And yet, Bottoms, Alabama always manages.

    I’m glad to see that George Wallace has such a worthy successor.

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  9. TangoMan says:

    At it’s core this is a good idea. It may need to be tweaked a bit to insure that the intent of the law is followed without inadvertently penalizing people.

    For instance, if a person can’t read English then they can’t read road signs and they shouldn’t be driving. However, if they can demonstrate proficiency in reading JUST the road signs on a driver’s exam, then that may be sufficient knowledge to be granted a license. A test can be modified or revised to insure that the prospective driver has this rudimentary level of knowledge.

    This is a good idea from a sociological POV because it undercuts the cancerous spread of multiculturalism and reinforces the time-tested assimilationist model of cultural development. It forces people to step out of their cultural ghettos and join the mainstream. It unites communities rather than divides them.

    Increased English proficiency will reduce the uncertainty that develops when drivers meet police for they will be able to understand the requests or commands issued by the officer.

    It’s funny that Alabama is leading the nation on this just course of reform. Good for them.

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  10. anjin-san says:

    In the absence of even a single coherent idea for dealing with the serious problems we face in this country, the GOP offers up a steady diet of anger and fear.

    It would be great if everyone in this country learned English. When he got to America, my grandfather got up at the crack of dawn, worked long hours, then took a trolly to night school to learn the language.

    But, we need to live with the reality of the world we live in today. “Blame the brown people” may indeed produce short-term political gain for Republicans, but I fail to see how it will improve the life of a single person in this country, except perhaps a few elected officials who live large on the gravy train.

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  11. virgil xenophon says:

    Tango Man hits the tgt here. PBS/Frontline–of all people–had a special not too long ago about the dangerous conditions caused by Big-Rig drivers in Texas who don’t speak/read English and the dangerous road hazards they represent and the resultant high fatal accident rates therefrom. The argument for practical knowledge at minimum of English among the driving public is no mere ideological/academic exercise..

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  12. [...] SignsPosted on | April 24, 2010 | No CommentsFrankly, I was stunned to see my fellow JSU alumnus Dr. James Joyner endorse this bit of antinomian nonsense:[I]f you actually want people who are not fully proficient [...]

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  13. just me says:

    I think the problem here is that it seems to work on the assumption that the only people who need to take a test in a different language are illegal immigrants or free loaders.

    The realities of living in the US outside of major cities pretty much require a person have a car. I would rather do what we can to make sure all drivers know the rules and obey them than risk people driving without a license.

    Also, many legal immigrants come here and open up businesses and contribute to society as they learn the language. I think it is a pretty huge assumption that all people needing to test in a different language refuse to learn English or don’t feel the need to learn it. I suspect most of them are taking the test as they learn the language.

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  14. Franklin says:

    This is a tough one. While I think he is obviously appealing to the side of people who resent immigrants, it’s definitely a good idea to find ways to help push people to learn a common language.

    But on the other hand, we need immigrants, this nation was built on them, and we have never had an official language. It might have been better if we had, but that ship has sailed.

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  15. steve says:

    IIRC, current immigrants are learning English about as fast as prior immigrants.

    Steve

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    It is particularly moronic to be whining about immigrants learning English at the point in history where English has become the default language of the entire planet.

    But race-baiting is vital to the GOP so they’ll keep finding excuses to take shots at any brown or black target.

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  17. TangoMan says:

    IIRC, current immigrants are learning English about as fast as prior immigrants.

    No, you’re not recalling correctly, at least in the case of the largest immigrant demographic. Pew reports:

    # Of adult first-generation Latinos, just 23% say they can carry on a conversation in English very well. That share rises sharply, to 88%, among the second generation of adults, and to 94% among the third and higher generations.
    # A majority of foreign-born Hispanics (52%) report that they speak only Spanish at home. That is true of just 11% of their adult children and of 6% of the children of U.S.-born Hispanics.
    # Half of the adult children of Latino immigrants speak some Spanish at home. By the third and higher generation, that has fallen to one-in-four.

    If current trends are no different than past trends, then I’d love to see some data on how many American-born children and grandchildren of German immigrants or Polish Immigrants cannot carry on “a conversation in English very well.” I haven’t seen such data.

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  18. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    After reading the comments here, I was sure I had mistakenly got on Daily Kos. I wonder if any of those who post here are Americans. Move to LA and see how well that operates. I am almost to the point I am sorry I spilt blood to defend your freedoms which you evidently are willing to do nothing to defend. I do not think the Governor was speaking of legal immigrants for they are not a problem. After reading the comments here I fully believe liberalism as practiced by progressives is a mental disorder which should be listed in the DSM IV. Are you listening Anjin?

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  19. Herb says:

    On the street sign nonsense…talk about a “red herring.” Most street signs can be readily identified by shape and color. A stop sign is a red octagon, whether it says STOP or ALTO. (Look it up.) There’s no reading necessary. The others consist of proper names and numbers, which strangely enough, Spanish speakers can read too.

    I spilt blood to defend your freedoms which you evidently are willing to do nothing to defend.

    Oh, please, Zels. I wish I lived in this alternate world where demanding someone forgo their native language and speak a foreign one is considered “freedom.”

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  20. steve says:

    Tangoman-Did you read that whole article? That is about the same as other immigrant groups in the past. Joseph Salmons, professor of German at U. Wisconsin has published a bit on the topic. Germans in Wisconsin lived in tight knit communities and were relatively slow to adopt English. Heck, I live in PA in a more rural area and Pennsylvania Dutch (German) is still common.

    Steve

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  21. anjin-san says:

    I spilt blood to defend your freedoms which you evidently are willing to do nothing to defend.

    Yea dude, you are a real freedom lover. I guess “freedom” includes the jackboot of government on peoples back telling them how they have to talk.

    My mother spoke French before she spoke English. My uncle fought at Chosin Reservoir. My dad enlisted in the army during the darkest hour of the Korean War. I am of the opinion that we are pretty good Americans.

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  22. john personna says:

    So you don’t think this whole question is just “bread and circuses?”

    Give us simple to agitate about? Don’t look at the man behind the curtain?

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  23. superdestroyer says:

    The third generaiton’s ancestors came to the U.S. before DVD, cell phones, Univision, and satellite dishes.

    These days, there is almost no reasons for poor Hispanics to learn English. They can easily function in a Spanish (really Kitchen-Spanish) world.

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  24. Lunacy says:

    If Maddow mocks it than it’s probably a better idea than I originally thought.

    And I’m not really seeing how hoping immigrants learn English makes one a bigot.

    But if Michael says it’s so than it must be true.

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  25. anjin-san says:

    And I’m not really seeing how hoping immigrants learn English makes one a bigot.

    Hoping is one thing. Demanding is another.

    Hope that’s not too complicated.

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  26. Lunacy says:

    Okay. Explain how “demanding” that immigrants speak the local language is bigoted. Is is hateful? Is it intolerant?

    I suggest that coming to another country with no intention of learning the language is rather intolerant.

    I further suggest that the premise that one should be able to take a written drivers test in the local language isn’t a demand. Drivers licenses are a privilege, not a right.

    Main Entry: big·ot
    Pronunciation: \ˈbi-gət\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: French, hypocrite, bigot
    Date: 1660

    : a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

    — big·ot·ed \-gÉ™-tÉ™d\ adjective

    — big·ot·ed·ly adverb

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  27. anjin-san says:

    Okay. Explain how “demanding” that immigrants speak the local language is bigoted. Is is hateful? Is it intolerant?

    When your people came here, there is a pretty good chance they did not speak English. Was there somebody waiting for them to tell them how to live? Can you look into the hearts and minds of millions of immigrants and know what there “intention” is?

    Yea, the right is all about individual freedom. Except if they don’t happen to like what you are doing…

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  28. Herb says:

    Drivers licenses are a privilege, not a right.

    So the government tells me.

    Free speech, though, is a right.

    You know, it’s funny. Small government types should be a little icked out by “big government” efforts to implement English-only policies. If you think Obamacare is an unwarranted government intrusion into your life, then it follows that you would think of the same of the government that tries to dictate which language you speak.

    I guess, if non-English speakers wanted actual free speech they’ll just have to incorporate and start sending money to politicians. I know a lot of conservatives right-wingers who would defend that!

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  29. TangoMan says:

    When your people came here, there is a pretty good chance they did not speak English. Was there somebody waiting for them to tell them how to live? Can you look into the hearts and minds of millions of immigrants and know what there “intention” is?

    Let’s undertake a Great Compromise. My side drops the English-Only requirement and your side advocates that people who can’t/won’t speak English in our society ride horses, instead of driving cars, make no request that society accommodate them (multiple languages at government offices, schooling in multiple languages, voting forms printed in multiple languages, etc)

    When earlier immigrants settled here, they weren’t arriving and making demands that society BEND to accommodate them and they weren’t arriving into the midst of a welfare state. Let these new immigrants come just as the old generation of immigrants came, and make their way in a frontier society without aid of welfare and without imposing their foreign preferences onto Americans.

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  30. An Interested Party says:

    …and without imposing their foreign preferences onto Americans.

    Apart from language, what preferences are you referring to?

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  31. floyd says:

    Why is it that all of the narrow minded bigots seem to think that Hispanics are the only group of immigrants incapable of assimilation or of learning the language?
    Hipanics seem to be at least as smart and capable as those who condescendly pretend, self righteously, to “support” them.
    Anyone care to list the languages not offered on the Driver’s test?
    Wake up, show a little respect, and treat these people as equals under the law!

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  32. Dutchgirl says:

    It may not be bigoted, but it sure seems underhanded. It unfairly treats those who have a valid reason for not being able to learn English before they require a driver’s license. And I imagine that the brilliant minds ho came up with this never lived abroad long enough to have to take a foreign driving exam. Its too politically calculated to smell anything but rotten.

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  33. G Pike says:

    It is really amazing reading this thread. Some of you don’t get out much. I travel all around the world, and yes I drive in every country I visit. The argument that they should not learn English before taking a Drivers License test is ludicrous. I went to Russia for two weeks and within THREE days, I was able to read Cyrillic and within FIVE days, I was speaking general Russian enough to communicate basically. If I was moving there permanently, it would only take a month or two before I would be able to take the drivers license test in Russian. I picked up German, French and Italian much quicker than Russian. I did cheat though, I spent about six hours on Rosetta Stone with each language to get a feel for the language.

    I was not fluent nor was my pronunciation great, but I was communicating in a short time. So why exactly should someone come here and require that they be given a drivers license exam in another language immediately? If they want to learn English, using the language and trying to speak it, they will have a good grasp of it in a few weeks or a little longer depending on their abilities. Regardless, the trade off for safety is worth more than their desire or instant gratification.

    Some of you want to say it is because of the Hispanics that this is happening. Well that is only one of the twelve languages, so if you make that comment you are either full of yourself thinking that the other 11 languages are not significant or are ignorant to the existence of other immigrants. Legal or illegal, they don’t need to conduct business of any king in any language other than English. Other countries do not translate for anyone. You do it in the language of the country.

    By the way, do you know the predominant language in the advanced world? English, English is the primary or secondary language in all of Europe (east and west)as well as most of Europe and many other countries.

    I would not move to Italy and expect to take the test in English. It is given in Italian only and if I want the license, I will make the effort to learn the language, at least enough to pass the test. If someone does not want to learn English in order to take the test, that tells you a WHOLE lot about their intentions. Too many immigrants come here and do not want to assimilate into the USA, some detest the USA and its customs. Some do a lot of things that are bad and due to our freedoms, we cannot stop it.

    However, James is wrong about the cost of drivers license has already been paid for translation. This is also bogus, in Alabama the test is regularly updated and changed to keep people from being able to cheat. So don’t spout off at the mouth about things your lacking of knowledge on. Stick to outside the beltway, where your rhetoric might be popular.

    The only thing I do agree with is that using this as a political platform is at least suspect.

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  34. Herb says:

    So why exactly should someone come here and require that they be given a drivers license exam in another language immediately?

    Because we’re not Russia.

    Other countries do not translate for anyone. You do it in the language of the country.

    Other countries aren’t as awesome as the US.

    I would not move to Italy and expect to take the test in English. It is given in Italian only…

    Hmmm….seems like this assertion can be tested. Can you take an Italian driving test in English?

    Yes!

    People unable to take the exam in written Italian may do an oral version; in some places there is an English-language version of the written test (try to establish in advance if this is available). Learner’s books with test questions are available at bookshops in Italian only; some driving schools have English translations for sale.

    As for this:

    Too many immigrants come here and do not want to assimilate into the USA, some detest the USA and its customs

    That tells me you have some fundamental misunderstandings on the immigrant experience. I know I want to pick up and move to a country I “detest,” so I can see how other people would want to do that too.

    No, they come here because America is awesome. Please stop trying to make it less awesome.

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  35. TangoMan says:

    That tells me you have some fundamental misunderstandings on the immigrant experience. I know I want to pick up and move to a country I “detest,” so I can see how other people would want to do that too.

    Herb, your feel-good nostrums don’t substitute for analysis. Most illegals are here for economic opportunity. Most don’t love this country, in fact, most plan on going back to their nations during their retirement years.

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  36. Herb says:

    Most illegals are here for economic opportunity. Most don’t love this country, in fact, most plan on going back to their nations during their retirement years.

    You know, Tangoman, call me a skeptic, but I don’t think you know a thing about how illegal aliens feel about this country. Not a single thing.

    My girlfriend is an immigration attorney. Most All of her clients fight very hard to stay here. They like this country, even though this country doesn’t like them.

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  37. Herb says:

    PS. When I read this Daniel Larison piece, I thought of you, Tangoman. Specifically, this part:

    More dangerously, being “untethered” means that producing actual evidence for an increasingly bizarre view of the world matters less and less. Assertion becomes more important than proof…..None of these things is true, but they have become true for a great many movement conservatives through constant repetition.

    Yep, sounds like Tangoman!

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  38. TangoMan says:

    Yep, sounds like Tangoman!

    What is with all of you liberals who comment on OTB and your need to rely on arguments that attack the person? Herb you just fell into the trap that Larison is warning about – you wish your assertion to be true, but that doesn’t make it true.

    If you think that this is a fair characterization, then make a case for it. I’m one of the commenters on this site who most frequently links to supporting evidence in my arguments and I tsk tsk you liberals for relying on assertion, and poor logic, in your arguments.

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  39. An Interested Party says:

    re: TangoMan | April 27, 2010 | 01:27 pm

    Perhaps you would care to provide the proof that “most” illegal immigrants don’t “love” this country and plan on returning to their own countries when they retire…I mean, if you are really basing what you write on supporting evidence rather than assertion and poor logic…

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  40. Barbara says:

    I am absolutely with him on this. Government documents of any kind should be in English. Aside from driver’s license tests, I do not want election materials and ballots in multiple languages. Learn our language. Will people drive without a license if they don’t speak English? Of course, the illegals do it all the time. But if a person is an official citizen, and can legally drive and vote as an American, then they’ve had enough time to learn the language. I wouldn’t consider living in another country and not learning their language. All our families were immigrants at one time, and they all learned English. I am a Democrat, but I’m not liberal on this point.

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