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Do Arizonans need to understand Australian English?

January 26, 2012


From the New York Times, a story about Alejandrina Cabrera who attempted to run for City Council in a border town:

Like many other states, Arizona has long required politicians at all levels to speak, read and write English, but the law fails to spell out just what that means. Is grade-school knowledge enough? Must one speak flawlessly? Who is to decide?

“I do feel this opening a box of Pandora, and we don’t know where it’s going to lead,” said Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla, who filed a legal challenge of Mrs. Cabrera’s English ability.

He acknowledged on local television that his own English was far from perfect. “I feel I don’t dominate 100 percent, but I can still get by,” said Mr. Escamilla, who graduated from the same Arizona high school as Mrs. Cabrera. “I can write, read and understand it very well.”…

On Jan. 13, Judge John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court ordered a linguist to evaluate Mrs. Cabrera….

In his report, which was detailed in a court hearing on Wednesday, William G. Eggington, a professor of English and linguistics at Brigham Young University in Utah, said that based on interviews and tests he conducted with Mrs. Cabrera, she had “basic survival level” English that fell well below that needed to participate in city business….

But Mrs. Cabrera said the fact that Professor Eggington was from Australia led to at least one misunderstanding during the assessment. He asked her about “summer,” which she said he pronounced “summa.” That is the nickname for the community of Somerton, prompting her to be utterly confused.

The Court in this case did make the decision to disqualify Cabrera.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 4:48 pm

    What a very sad case. I hope Cabrera’s lawyers will appeal.

    NYT reporter Marc Lacey may be making too much out of Cabrera’s misunderstanding of Eggington’s Australian English pronunciation. There’s the note of “at least one misunderstanding during the assessment” implying there might have been other misunderstandings. But the full opinion of the linguistics expert was reportedly “based on interviews and tests” and not just “the [one] assessment.”

    The tragic thing is that the court, according to Lacey’s article, allowed Eggington’s opinion that Cabrera’s English is “well below that needed to participate in city business.” If I were one of her lawyers I would have objected that Eggington is not to decide what is needed to participate in the business of the city.

    A few years ago, I was called as the linguistics expert on behalf of a Federal Public Defender whose client was not a native speaker of English, in United States v. Richard Jong Yu. Mr. Yu, the defendant, had been indicted on three federal counts of bribery. My methods of assessing the defendant’s English were similar to Eggington’s. The assessment was thorough and definitive. Mr. Yu, the defendant, was not proficient in English past a critical level. He was not able to comprehend spoken or written English nor at that time able to converse or write in it. What is more, I was able to use standardized test measures from prior to any of the events that led to the charges; hence, my independent assessments were also able to confirm those earlier results. However, the prosecuting attorney was very careful not to allow testimony from me that asserted what might or might not be adequate or sufficient English abilities and facility for the alleged dealings at hand. Nor could I speak to cultural difference in business dealings in this country and in the defendant’s home country. The testimony, in the end, was enough; and one juror afterwards told the local newspaper reporter that the assessment of Yu’s level of English made it clear the ways that the FBI had made an unjust series of stings taking advantage of the English language barrier to manipulate events. Yu was acquitted of all three counts, I’m happy to say. And the newspaper reporter was also able to help Yu better say the following in print: “‘I’m pretty happy,’ Yu… said outside the courtroom. ‘I think they [the jury] know the truth. The truth never change.'”

  2. January 26, 2012 5:20 pm

    One of the things that distinguishes highly competent from fluent is ability to handle accents and unknown idioms easily. Assuming one agreed with the law, I don’t think throwing an accent at someone is an unreasonable test.

    As for the level of competence I think reading a 19th century legal text with comprehension, or understand all statements made in a court or civil hearing is a fair test. Which is what those statutes originally meant.

  3. January 26, 2012 5:32 pm

    One of the things that distinguishes highly competent from fluent is ability to handle accents and unknown idioms easily.

    That may be true, but unfortunately standardized and internationally recognized tests of the English language do not measure for this. The only English proficiency and facility exam that I know that even has different Englishes (i.e., phonologies, lexicon, syntax, and so forth of different lects) is the Pearson Test of English Academic. Nonetheless, the PTE doesn’t test for abilities to distinguish accents or idiomatic regional phrases; worse, it actually allows and uses variant spellings from different Englishes. (I’ve had to develop my own test of just what you’re saying is critical to know and have used it in various research projects to analyse preferences for and prejudices against speakers of different varieties of English.)

  4. January 26, 2012 7:02 pm

    For me the irony is that, assuming the New York Times accurately quoted Juan Carlos Escamilla, he hardly speaks fluent English.

    Immigrants with only fair English have certainly done well in business and academia, but politics seems a different kettle of fish. (Of course, one immigrant with only fair English who achieved high political office was Arnold Schwarzenegger.) However, in a border town like San Luis, I would not imagine that would matter.

    I found Kurk’s story fascinating, but there is of course a huge difference in the two stories: Alejandrina Cabrera was attempting to prove English proficiency, while Richard Jong Yu would be motivated to play down any skill he had in English. I imagine that this explains why it was so important that Kurk was able to refer to earlier results, presumably dated before the incident that led to his arrest.

  5. January 27, 2012 6:17 pm

    J.K. The only test I’m familiar with is the TOEFL which is designed to test for academic success. I think the PTE is also academic. And in general neither one is testing for fluency. My wife, day she arrived, 20 years ago, got all but one question on the TOEFL, but was far from fluent.

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