Post Classifieds

Right to speak native language akin to civil rights

On October 29, 2009

The notion of ticketing a driver for not speaking English never occurred to me, perhaps because no such law exists for average drivers (as opposed to commercial drivers). But that is exactly what happened with Ernestina Mondragon, a Hispanic woman who was stopped by the police on Oct. 2, 2009, in Dallas, Texas. She was pulled over for making an illegal u-turn and then issued a fine for $204 for being a non-English-speaking driver.

This ridiculous occurrence does not stop there. We have recently learned that 38 similar tickets have been issued since 2007 to non-English-speaking drivers. To be fair, Dallas police Chief David Kunkle has apologized and claimed that he was unaware of the fact that Dallas police have been issuing these invalid tickets for years. The Dallas police intend to void all of the citations and issue refunds for fees already paid.

I was aggravated that the misapplication of the law by policemen had happened at all, let alone 39 times. If the Dallas population cannot rely on the police for proper implementation of the law and for the Dallas police chief to always be aware of those laws, then who can they rely on?

In my opinion the policemen involved should be penalized by the Dallas authority to show that discrimination will not be tolerated. If the police gave me a ticket for not being able to speak English, I would be humiliated. Undoubtedly, this must have been upsetting for Mondragon. I do not live in Dallas and I am not of Hispanic descent, therefore, I do not claim to know what is best for the Hispanic population. Yet, while the stir raised by these 39 cases will eventually abate, a larger controversy remains. As someone who concerns herself with matters of discrimination, I believe this clearly represents a frequently debated issue: the status and role of language in America.

Regardless of whether you believe Mondragon should be able to speak English, no federal law requires average drivers to speak it. Language is not an issue with obeying traffic laws and understanding a no u-turn sign, since it is a symbol. There are drivers who speak English fluently and still choose to violate traffic laws. Should it be an offense for everyone to make an illegal u-turn? Of course. Should it be an offense to not speak English? Absolutely not.

Let us remember that the United States has no official language. Attempts to create legislation to make English our official language in the past were discriminatory and the “Speak English” campaign is offensive and impractical for several reasons. First, since English is already the prevalent language, many immigrants will eventually learn it, especially if they would like to become citizens. For those who claim that making English our official language will unite us, values are really what unites a nation, not language. Furthermore, a multilingual America is beneficial for diplomacy with other nations. Not to mention, language restrictions would cause other complications, like making it more difficult for minorities to access health care.

Most importantly, we must recognize that language rights are fundamental civil rights and we should not be forcing immigrants to assimilate with a certain culture. It is important for an individual to hold on to their native language and culture. Why should we strip away an individual’s identity and, in the process, overlook the freedom and diversity that makes America so great?

And lastly, let us not forget: this is a country of immigrants. European colonists were not required to learn the languages of the natives, not that they showed much interest in doing so. The harsh truth is that history is repeating itself by the attempts of some to maintain cultural dominance. There still exists xenophobes in our society; these people feel threatened by diversity and make the claim that multiculturalism produces ethnic separatism. Such issues call for further elaboration, but I will conclude for now: we did not remove the “Whites Only” signs to replace them with “Speak English” signs.

— Butheina Hamdah is an IC Columnist and a freshman majoring in political science and public administration.

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