Speak English or Else

We subscribe to the very interesting listserv by the Interagency Language Roundtable, which is a federal agency that creates and shares information about language-related activities. They keep us up-to-date on highly relevant matters for our industry, including legislation developments on interpretation on the federal level. We highly recommend subscribing to their listserv here.

The listserv's most recent posting caught our attention:

Speak English well, or get a ticket
Truckers face hefty fine for breaking law that says they must be able to talk with police.

Tuscaloosa, Ala. —- Manuel Castillo was driving a truck through Alabama hauling onions from Georgia and left with a $500 ticket for something he didn't think he was doing: speaking English poorly.
Castillo, who was stopped on his way back to California, said he knows federal law requires him to be able to converse in English with an officer, but he thought his language skills were good enough to avoid a ticket. Still, Castillo said he plans to pay the maximum fine of $500 rather than return to Alabama to fight the ticket. "It just doesn't seem fair to be ticketed if I wasn't doing anything dangerous on the road," he said. Federal law requires that anyone with a commercial driver's license speak English well enough to talk with police. Authorities last year issued 25,230 tickets nationwide for violations. Now the federal government is trying to tighten the English requirement, saying the change is needed for safety reasons.
Read the full article.
It makes sense that commercial truckers need to be able to communicate with an officer in basic English when stopped on the road. However, getting a ticket for no other offense than being a "non-English speaker" is highly controversial (to put it mildly). The topic of English proficiency is hotly debated and doesn't have an easy answer-- what do the languages professionals think in this case? Who determines if the driver's English is good enough? The officer? How can she/he correctly assess language skills? Are there any discrimination issues? Would these drivers have the right to an interpreter? We'd love to hear your thoughts -- just leave a comment.


Emma Littner said...

Could the argument not be turned around? Why should the Federal government impose a basic English requirement when it could train its officers to speak a basic level of Spanish in order to converse with the truck driver? The requirement to speak basic English only reinforces the common view that anglo saxons are arrogant when it comes to speaking foreign languages: why should they bother to learn a foreign language? After all, English is *the* universal language and everyone should learn to speak it.
I can only sigh and shake my head...

Rafael Mojica on July 8, 2009 at 10:27 AM said...

Let's not go that far with teaching them Spanish. What is the English proficiency (or education level) requirement to be a police officer. How can they assess a "proper" level of English if they don't even speak/write it correctly?

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should pass laws requiring people not to use Southern accents when driving commercial vehicles outside Alabama. I've heard plenty of strong accents used by native speakers of English that are pretty hard to understand if you're not from the same region. Such speakers even get subtitled on TV now and again on news programs or the like...


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 10, 2009 at 12:22 PM said...

@emma: We like your suggestion of turning it around. We knew we'd get great comments from languages professionals -- appreciate your insight.

@goodgroom:Very good point about the level of English required to be a police officer. We have encountered several who don't know how to use the past participle.

@MT: Haha, we had a good laugh about your comment. True, true, sometimes Southern is its own language. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

"The topic of English proficiency is highly debated" is not even English. A topic can be hotly debated, and something can be highly debatable.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 12, 2009 at 11:39 AM said...

@Anonymous: Thanks for your gracious correction. Of course you are right, Anonymous! Our bad -- we meant to say "hotly." :)

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