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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Is he right, or just far right?

Tim James, a candidate for governor in Alabama, has a new ad that's generating interest far beyond the borders of the Sweet Home state.

If he's elected, the commercial says, he'll end the current practice of giving drivers license tests in 12 languages, and just offer them in English.

"This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it," he says. It just makes good business sense, he adds.

Some people accuse him of being racist. But others say he's got a point: If you can't understand English well enough to read signs and follow directions, should you be driving?

Washington state offers drivers license manuals, and the written test in six languages besides English: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. They can also get an interpreter from a list supplied by the Department of Social and Health Services to administer the test in other languages, Brad Benford of the Department of Licensing said.

But applicant must be prepared to take the driving test with a tester who speaks English, and interpreters are not allowed to go on the test drive.

Some license offices have bilingual testers for some of the more prevalent languages in the state -- Cantonese, Chinese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish or Vietnamese -- Benfield said. The applicant can request a bilingual tester, and the office will try to accomodate them if one is available. But if the applicant needs someone who speaks Pashtu or Swahili or Romanian, they're going to be out of luck.

But back to Tim James and his commercial. Alabama only offers its manual in English, but does allow applicants to take the written test in American Sign and 12 foreign languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, and Vietnamese.

The people who administer the road test only speak English, and like in Washington, no interpreters are allowed in the vehicle. Also like Washington, the written test is administered by a computerized machine, which is programmed to give the test in English or any of the other 12 languages.

Dorris Teague, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said there's a bit of history behind all this:  Alabama offered a written form of the test in 14 languages until 1990. In 1991, a constitutional amendment passed making English the official language of the state, and they went to English-only drivers tests. In 1998, a federal court ruling said the state had to start offering the tests in seven other languages, and the number grew to 12 when the state went to computerized testing machines in 2003.

But the state didn't pay for those automated testing machines, Teague said, the feds did.

So if, as James suggests, the state were to offer its drivers tests in English only, it wouldn't cost money for new programs, they'd just turn off the other languages. But it wouldn't necessarily save money, either.

So what do you think? Should Washington and other states only offer its written drivers' tests in English? Or should they keep whatever multi-lingual programs they've got?

And what about James' other point: If you live in America,  you should learn to speak English? Is it xenophobia, or just common business sense?

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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