Speak English, get out of jail free

Dennis Baron 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  
jail free

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  
serious felonies,

Instead I want to focus on the practice of a very American form of  
language abuse.

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


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English                                   	
University of Illinois	

608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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