"This is Alabama. We speak English here."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tim James is running for governor in Alabama, and has produced the following ad:

Text: "I'm Tim James. Why do our politicians make us give drivers license exams in twelve languages? This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it. We're only giving that test in English if I'm governor. Maybe it's the businessman in me, but we'll save money. And it makes sense. Does it to you?"

Does it to me? Let's check. Here are all the countries that make more per capita than the US.

Rank Country US$
1 Luxembourg 104,512
2 Norway 79,085
3 Qatar 68,872
4 Switzerland 67,560
5 Denmark 56,115
6 Ireland 51,356
7 Netherlands 48,223
8 United Arab Emirates 46,857
9 United States 46,381

Luxembourg - all citizens fluent in at least three languages (French, German, Luxembourgish, usually English as well), all three languages are used in different aspects of daily life in the country.

Norway - Norwegian is the official language, has two written forms (Bokmål and Nynorsk) that each region chooses from according to its personal preference, most citizens fluent in English.

Qatar - Arabic is the official language, but has a huge expat population, many of which don't bother to learn Arabic.

Switzerland - 3.5 official languages (German, French, Italian official, Romansh also official but not to quite the same extent).

Denmark - More or less the same as Norway, except with more German speakers per capita (58% of the population speaks it).

Ireland - Two official languages, Irish and English. A lot of time and effort is being put into reviving and strengthening Irish.

Netherlands - Also similar to Norway and Denmark, with the majority very good at English and German in addition to Dutch.

United Arab Emirates - similar to Qatar.

Looks like every single country there either has a large number of official languages, or has a society in which most expats can live and work without needing to first learn the local language. Add to that the fact that a large cost in administering such tests is getting the translation done in the first place, and no, the "maybe it's the businessman in me" argument doesn't fly here.

On a more personal level, articles like this show how multilingualism increases pay and employment opportunities even for those that already speak English as a mother tongue, as monolingual English speakers often miss out on opportunities that go to those who speak another language as a mother tongue in addition to fluent English. The British Council says much the same thing:
Monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations. Alongside that, many countries are introducing English into the primary curriculum but – to say the least – British schoolchildren and students do not appear to be gaining greater encouragement to achieve fluency in other languages.

Now, if he really wanted to make an appeal for having English-only tests, the safety/practicality argument would have been better (signs are in English, police officers and other drivers will talk to you in English, etc.), and people with English as a foreign tongue could be given extra training on the side (role playing how to talk with a police officer or angry driver for example) to deal with this. But that doesn't have quite the visceral appeal as "This is Alabama. We speak English here. If you want to live here, learn it."

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