Passing the fluency test

Posted Feb. 05, 2012, at 6:16 p.m.

A partial video of this remarkable court hearing captures, beyond doubt, a woman struggling to understand what is being said. When she speaks, she does so haltingly, in the manner familiar to anyone who has been lost in the labyrinth of a foreign language. You don’t have to be a linguist to recognize that communication, at its most basic level, failed that day in Arizona’s Yuma County Superior Court.

Alejandrina Cabrera, the woman in question, is like many people who struggle to work in the language of their adopted land. In surveys, for example, only about a quarter of first-generation Latino immigrants describe themselves as fluent. A subjective assessment, to be sure, but a telling one in that it reveals how hard it is to convince yourself that you are linguistically competent.

Cabrera’s case is unique because of the verdict. The judge, citing the testimony of an expert who assessed Cabrera’s language skills, ordered her removed from the ballot for a city council seat in San Luis because she was not fluent in English, as is required in Arizona.

There is great temptation to see Cabrera’s case through the prism of English-only laws, those statutes that have been in vogue over the last decade or so. More than half the states, including Arizona, have declared English the official language. The implications are practical because these measures legislate the language of government, and political because they straddle a fault line in the immigration debate.

Cabrera’s case is English-only, but with a significant twist. The relatively new laws across the country indirectly demand proficiency from those at the center of government but don’t require it in a legal sense. None, for example, says that elected office is not possible for those who don’t speak English. None establishes standards for fluency. The assumption is that all will speak the language of government, English.

The relevant law in Cabrera’s case dates to 1910, two years before statehood, when the then-territory drafted its constitution. It requires elected officials to master the English language “sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter.” What constitutes “sufficiently well” is not explained, which is why an expert was called to assess Cabrera.

The judge in this case acted within reason given the circumstances. Cabrera, who is appealing, proved the case against her. That said, we confess that there is something unsettling about having to establish language fluency to run for office. Perhaps the case will highlight the quirky law and prompt a move to change it, if only to address its subjective qualities.

What is unreasonable is the assumption that anyone with an accent is now threatened in Arizona, as some have charged. San Luis, which is overwhelmingly Latino, proves the folly of that conclusion. Most elected officials are Hispanic and some, including the mayor, speak accented English. That did not prevent them from getting elected, which is as it should be.

Dallas Morning News (Jan. 31)

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