Speak English, get out of jail free
debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Mar 28 02:16:02 UTC 2008
There's a new post on the Web of Language: Speak English, get out of
A Pennsylvania judge has sentenced three Spanish-speaking men to
learn English or go to jail. The three, who pled guilty to conspiracy
to commit robbery, will remain free on parole for a year, then take
an English test. If they fail, then according to Judge Peter Paul
Olszewski, Jr., it’s go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not
collect $200. And they’ll stay in jail for the remaining 20 months of
their two-year prison term.
This isn’t the first time English has been used as punishment for a
crime. In June, 1995, an Amarillo, Texas, judge ordered the mother of
a five-year-old to speak only English to her daughter or lose custody
of the child. Judge Samuel C. Kiser accused Martha Laureano of child
abuse for speaking Spanish to the girl, who was about to enter
kindergarten, adding that English was necessary for the youngster to
“do good in school.” Even worse, the judge added, without English,
Laureano’s daughter would be condemned to a life as a maid.
When the story broke, there was a national outcry against this
overreaching and misdirected decision. Judge Kiser, sensing that some
fence-mending might be appropriate, apologized to maids. But he held
resolutely to his English-only order.
While Judge Kiser might have had trouble passing his Pennsylvania
colleague's English test, judicial mastery of English grammar is not
the issue here. Nor are the obvious free-speech concerns of cases
which equate Spanish with child abuse, armed robbery, and other
Instead I want to focus on the practice of a very American form of
For many years, young speakers of Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, and other
minority languages in this country were beaten, humiliated, or given
detentions if they used their first language in classrooms or on the
schoolyard. Such punishments did not accelerate the students'
adoption of English. As the average high schooler chafing under a
language requirement will attest, you can't make someone speak a
“foreign” language. Physical force and corporal punishment do even
less to secure linguistic compliance.....
read the rest on The Web of Language
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801
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