Which California state legislators do not speak English?

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Eric Crafton, a city councilor in Nashville, is the proponent of a law prohibiting government officials from communicating in any language other than English (with some exceptions for health and safety). Currently, there are no requirements that any particular language be used, a situation which, Mr. Crafton contends, is subject to abuse. To make his point he introduced his resolution in Japanese, which he is reported to speak fluently as the result of time spent in Japan while serving in the Navy.

As with previous proposals of this type, I am not convinced that there is a problem in need of a solution. I haven't heard of a lot of government officials, in Nashville or elsewhere, insisting on using languages other than English that their constituents and clients do not understand. Elected officials are, after all, politicians, and politicians are out to get the vote. Surely even the stupidest politician is aware that using a language that his constituents do not understand is not going to make him popular and bring in the votes. Similarly, municipal employees will quickly draw complaints if they refuse to communicate with their clients. They may get away with refusal to use a minority language, but I just don't see their political masters letting them get away with refusal to use the majority language.

The New York Times quotes Mr. Crafton as giving one piece of evidence of the existence of the problem he hopes to solve:

I happened to see a state legislature meeting in California where several of the state representatives had interpreters at their desk because they couldn’t speak English.

If this is true, it is probably not evidence of the problem. Those legislators would not have been elected if they did not speak the language of their constituents, so if this is true, I'm willing to bet that they represent districts in which the majority language is not English. The "problem", then, would not be the one that Mr. Crafton cites, but rather that state legislators might not all have a common language. That would be inconvenient, to be sure, but it is a problem that arises in multilingual countries and international organizations and is one that is not all that difficult to deal with. Here in Canada, for example, Parliament functions quite nicely in two languages, English and French. Most anglophone MPs do not speak functional French. Most francophone MPs do speak English, but a few don't.

The fact is, though, that the ability to speak English is so useful that members of linguistic minorities, whether native born or immigrant, who have any interest in getting ahead, a category that presumably includes those who become state legislators, are strongly motivated to learn it, and do learn it. I don't believe that there are California state legislators who do not speak and understand English. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. I'd like to know the names of the California state legislators who allegedly do not speak English along with the basis for the claim that they don't. I don't know if Mr. Crafton reads Language Log, but if he or anyone else can supply this information, I'll be surprised.


  1. Invigilator said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Off-topic a bit, but one of the most eloquent orators in the Macedonian Assembly, when I was working in Macedonia a few years ago, was an ethnic Albanian (a very large minority in Macedonia, 25-30 percent of the population). At the time the Assembly was Macedonian-language only, and he put his ethnic Macedonian colleagues to shame as a speaker.

    When I — an American and fluent Macedonian speaker — met with him, he insisted on speaking English through a rather poor interpreter. Since then the Albanians, have, I think, secured the right to speak Albanian in the Assembly. As in many such situations, virtually all the educated Albanophones speak Macedonian and the previous lingua franca, Serbo-Croatian (which has now turned into Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian). Virtually none of the ethnic Macedonians speak Albanian.

  2. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    Well since he introduced his in resolution in Japanese, we can probably just ignore it. I doubt Nashville can muster a quorum of Japanese speakers. If I'm wrong, I'll be surprised. Then Nashville could become the first town to have an "English only" law written in Japanese. Which brings up the question, wouldn't that law invalidate itself?

  3. Bill Poser said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    "wouldn't that law invalidate itself?"

    No, because the law would only apply after being passed, not retroactively.

  4. James Wimberley said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Basque politicians in the Spanish Cortés have been known to speak in Basque, which they are SFIK constitutionally entitled to do. But this is an occasional rite to gain brownie points with separatist constituents and annoy Castilian imperialists on the right. At other times, if they are actually trying to argue a point they speak in Castilian.
    Using Japanese sounds a great idea for a filibuster.

  5. language hat said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    I don't believe that there are California state legislators who do not speak and understand English.

    I don't either, and I too was struck by that when reading the Times article. I hope someone comes up with actual facts.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Well, one way to revive interest in Classics would be for the US Senate to follow the linguistic rules of its Roman model: Senators would be required to speak in Latin, but foreigners allowed to address the Senate would be permitted to speak Greek. Full emulation of the Roman model would entail providing no Greek->Latin interpreters: Roman Senators could all understand speeches in Greek.

    I wonder if Caroline Kennedy speaks Latin?

  7. kdede03 said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Is anybody else annoyed by the fact that the reporting of this story does not include an interview with a linguist? A sociologist and a political scientist were cited, but no linguists. On a story about language policy. You'd think….

  8. Sili said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    You could try asking Zeno Ferox. He seems to have a good grasp on all things political in Cali.

    But given the reach of LL, I'm sure answers will be provided soon enough.

  9. Zeno said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    Mr. Crafton, to put it mildly, is full of crap. All of California's legislators are extremely fluent in English (which is not quite the same thing as always speaking it correctly). The state legislature routinely uses sign-language interpreters for the benefit of hard-of-hearing attendees in the audience at meetings and sessions, but I am not aware of any regular use of translators for spoken languages.

  10. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    It may be that Mr. Crafton, through some rip in the space-time continuum, was viewing California legislative proceedings 135 years ago, when — apparently — the Mayor of Los Angeles (and other California politicians as well?) spoke only Spanish. Back then, the California constitution explicitly required that "[a]ll laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions emanating from any of the three supreme powers of this State, which from their nature require publication, [to] be published in English and Spanish." That state of affairs lasted until 1879, when nativists pushed through a new constitutional rule that "all laws of the State of California, and all official writings, and the executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings shall be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language." See http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jWCRAWFORD/1879con.htm

  11. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Please avert your eyes from the grammatical error I inserted in the first quotation above. Sigh . . .

  12. Southern Beale said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    I'm a native California who now lives in Nashville and am opposed to Crafton's English Only referendum for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is because I believe it is a cover for nativist bigotry. Since Crafton claims he read somewhere that some California legislators needed translators, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess he read that in some of John Tanton's racist nativist propgaganda.

    If anyone can give me the name of one california state legislator who needed a translator to conduct his or her duties in the state Senate or state Assembly, I'll eat my toe.

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    I love that the supposed problem is officials unable or unwilling to speak English, but then the law to fix it has "exceptions allowed for issues of health and safety". Because of course, if health or safety is involved, then it's fine for officials to refuse to speak English.

    By the way, do any legal types know how ASL would fit into the picture? Obviously the ADA, being a federal law, would supersede this municipal resolution, but I wonder if the resolution might still cause some problems for ASL speakers.

  14. sharon said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    Or maybe he's into Tudor history…

    Also be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all Justices, Comissioners, Sheriffs, Coroners, Escheators, Stewards, and their Lieutenants, and all other Officers and Ministers of the Law, shall proclaim and keep the Sessions Courts, Hundreds, Leets, Sheriffs Courts, and all other Courts in the English Tongue;

    (2) and all Oaths of Officers, Juries and Inquests, and all other Affidavits, Verdicts and Wagers of Law, to be given and done in the English Tongue;

    (3) and also that from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King's Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language.

    (from 'An Acte for Lawes & Justice to be ministred in Wales in like fourme as it is in this Realme' (27 Henry VIII c. 26), 1536)

  15. Jakel said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    @ Ran Ari-Gur; I suspect that the ADA mandating allowances for signed languages is sole reason for the "exceptions allowed for issues of health and safety". Deafness and hard of hearing being health issues.

  16. Graeme Hirst said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    @Bill Poser:
    "wouldn't that law invalidate itself?"
    No, because the law would only apply after being passed, not retroactively.

    Well, that would depend on the wording of the law. Compare, for example, the Australian Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (An Act for the Interpretation of Acts of Parliament and for Shortening their Language):

    2 Application of Act
    (1) Except so far as the contrary intention appears, this Act applies to all Acts, including this Act.

  17. Bart said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    Well, there's certainly plenty of California state employees who have trouble speaking English, as any random phone call to a state agency can prove. And I'd say that what the members of the Assembly are speaking resembles English, but, on closer scrutiny, is in fact, fluent B.S.

  18. alfanje said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    @ James Wimberley.

    Spanish Cortes Generales are the Congress and Senate together. They almost never meet. The language that must be spoken in the Parliament is not specified in the Constitution but in the "Reglamento" of each Chamber. Only the Spanish language (Castilian) can be used in the Congress, co-official languages will be used in the Senate soon.

    On the other hand, you can observe that kind of attitude you describe from Basque nationalist politicians in the Basque parliament or any local council of the Basque Autonomous Community, as both languages can be used in those institutions.

  19. dr pepper said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    I believe that the sasquatch legislators in California prefer to use sign language.

  20. Achim said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:40 am

    @ Jakel: "Deafness and hard of hearing being health issues."

    Rather not. Being deaf or hard of hearing may be the result of an illness, and medically trained people are involved in the decision which assistive devices a person requires, but from the point of view of a person with a handicap, the handicap is not just a health issue, but a social and communication issue – "accessibility" and "inclusion" are the terms that spring to the mind.

    What Mr Crafton probably meant was that when a non-English speaking person's health of safety are at stake, government official might make an exception from the English-only rule.

    BTW: Two or three years ago, a school here in Berlin decided it was a "German only" school, meaning that not only was German the language to be used in class, but also during recess, meals or voluntary activities. There was an uproar from civil rights advocates and immigrant organisations, quite overlooking that the decision was not imposed on the communitiy by a headperson, but taken by staff, parents and students in unison. The idea was the same as noted by Bill Poser in the original post: To get ahead, you have to be at least functional in the majority language. Although you can, to a certain degree, function quite well in Turkish in German cities with a considerable proportion of immigrants, you need German if ou want to "get ahead".

  21. Brian Barker said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:54 am

    As the "International Year of Languages" comes to an end on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

    The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

    The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net

  22. Eyebrows McGee said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    Didn't Bertie Ahern used to whip into Irish Gaelic with some frequency when he was challenged in the Dáil Éireann as a fairly effective means of shutting down criticism, as Irish Gaelic was one of the two official languages in which Dáil business could be carried out, but very few members spoke it at all, even fewer with fluency? But perhaps I'm thinking of a different Irish politician.

    @Ran Ari-Gur: "but then the law to fix it has "exceptions allowed for issues of health and safety""

    What the "official language" people rarely consider is that there are going to be an enormous variety of CONSTITUTIONAL exceptions, and a lot of them will end up being quite expensive. In some counties with a large minority-language population, for example, a bilingual judge may conduct small claims court (in particular) in the minority language one morning a week. If you have two Spanish-speaking parties and a bilingual judge on a minor small claims case, it's absurd to conduct it in English — because in many cases, the state has to provide translators, and translators are expensive. (My husband worked on a case that required a translator, and the party's translator bills actually ended up costing more than her lawyer bills! It was a civil case, so all parties were paying their own costs, but imagine if it had been a criminal case and the state had had an obligation to provide translation services to meet Constitutional Due Process requirements!)

    The DMV in Chicago doesn't provide documents in six languages out of the kindness of its heart or because it's all "yay, people who don't speak English!" The DMV does it because it's way cheaper to translate those documents ONCE into the most common minority languages in the area than to constantly deal with translators when non-English speaking citizens and legal residents attempt to do routine business with the state that they have a right to do, or are required to do. Even if you require everyone to bring their own translator (which would never stand up for certain state business, and would probably bring "discrimination based on national origin" lawsuits, which, even if they failed, would cost taxpayer dollars to defend), it would take quite a bit more time to deal with, and that translates to money.

    Some lawyers I've talked to are of the opinion that this kind of law would even impact situations like parent-teacher conferences where a local public school uses the volunteer services of (say) a local clergyperson as an unofficial translator. Where I grew up we had a large Korean population, both permanent and those here temporarily for work, and some of the mothers put together a sort of translation collective where the ones who were competent in English would accompany those who weren't to that kind of meeting. It's possible (some lawyers think) those kinds of casual solutions would no longer be allowed. Depend on how the law was written, I suppose.

    Okay, I've veered quite a ways into tangent-land. But it's like these people don't think the government wastes enough of their tax dollars already. :P

  23. Anthony said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Eyebrows says:

    If you have two Spanish-speaking parties and a bilingual judge on a minor small claims case, it's absurd to conduct it in English — because in many cases, the state has to provide translators, and translators are expensive.

    Absurd as it may be, it is my understanding that at least in California, the trial must be conducted in English, with translators all around, even in traffic cases.

  24. Daniel said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:40 pm


    Last time I was in whatever DMV is closer to me (in Chicago), it looked like there were way more than 6 options. Perhaps it just seems like that in my head. Or maybe the fact that I live in a very Asian area accounts for extra translations that might not be kicking around other DMVs.

  25. Southern Beale said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    After local bloggers did what the New York Times reporter forgot to do — that is, check with the California legislature to find out which state legislators need interpretors (none, not now or ever), Mr. Crafton has since, ahem, "clarified" his statement. What he meant to say is that he THINKS he something LIKE that ….

  26. Southern Beale said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    er, I meant interpreters ….. not tors ….

  27. mollymooly said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    @Eyebrows: Bertie Ahern was even less fluent in Irish than the average Irish politician; the statement is apocryphal of several earlier politicians. The current Taoiseach and leader of the opposition both have good Irish.

    BTW The latest language-politics issue in Ireland is changing the international vehicle code from IRL to ÉIR.

  28. Bill Walderman said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    "nativists pushed through a new constitutional rule that 'all laws of the State of California, and all official writings, and the executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings shall be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language.'"

    In the case of California, wouldn't it be more accurate to refer to the proponents of English as "immigrationists" and to reserve the term "nativists" for those advocating Spanish to the exclusion of English?

  29. Bryan D said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    Some of you have pointed out that this may be an issue for individuals needing to communicate with using ASL.

    I have some doubt that the politician in question, or even many Americans think ASL is not English.

    Maybe that underlines how well they have thought this out….

  30. Eyebrows McGee said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    @daniel: "it looked like there were way more than 6 options. Perhaps it just seems like that in my head."

    You're probably right; I've moved downstate where we only have two languages at the DMV, so I haven't been to a Chicago DMV in about 5 years, and I used to go to one slightly in the burbs. It had English, Spanish, Polish, Korean, Russian, and something I can't remember. I had a long time in line to peruse them. :) I would not be surprised to see the languages and number of languages to vary by individual DMV (not even by county or anything) to accommodate the diversity of the state.

    I would also not be surprised to see my local DMV add Hindi to its current English and Spanish in the near future.

  31. Forrest said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    I guess it's easier to fix problems that don't exist, than real ones. I've never heard of a modern legislator from California who can't speak English. On that note, though, maybe we need a law about Latin in church…?

  32. E. Dotson Wilson said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    As a legislative officer of the Assembly, I along with my staff are responsible for maintaining the official records of the California Assembly. Councilman Crafton's quote is not accurate. All 80 members of the California Assembly, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, are fluent in English. A basic fact check by the New York Times would have revealed the facts.

    The California State Assembly has had over 3,600 Members serve since 1849 and not one legislator has ever required an interpreter. The current members of the Assembly collectively represent fifty-eight counties and a statewide population in excess of thirty-eight million people.

    E. Dotson Wilson
    Chief Clerk of the Assembly

  33. Bill Poser said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    Thank you. That settles that.

  34. Bill Poser said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    In the case of California, wouldn't it be more accurate to refer to the proponents of English as "immigrationists" and to reserve the term "nativists" for those advocating Spanish to the exclusion of English?

    It's worse than that. Most of the current Spanish speakers in California speak varieties of Mexican Spanish that have been introduced relatively recently and are different from the Spanish of the Californios, the old Spanish stratum. And then of course even the Californios are immigrants. The real natives are the Indians.

  35. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    Well, not quite "immigrationist" either, since the folks behind the rule change were the California Workingman's Party, whose slogan was "The Chinese must go!" I think the word I was groping for to describe them was "racist."

  36. Todd said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 6:23 am

    I'm sure I'll receive fire for this, but being educated in linguistics, although an x-only campaign is appallingly authoritarian (literally), I actually am a proponent of an official language.

    What an official language does is theoretically allow any and all residents of the given area to be able to communicate with each other (even if only for official purposes) without bias of what their native tongue may or may not be.

    With legal proceedings conducted and written in an official language, any person can observe/read the records and understand it. Without it, if a court proceeding which happened to be important to me (e.g. as a lawyer) was conducted with all parties speaking in e.g. Wolof (due to being conducted in a Wolof-speaking enclave), I would face significant obstacles understanding something very important to myself.

    Plus, (public or private) translation costs would be a fraction of what they were before.

    Additionally, one legacy of British influence on the formation of a modern, unified Indian state was not just political, but also linguistic: without English, the state of India would most likely try to impose Hindi as an official language, which would seem to treat all non-Hindiphones/Hindus as second-class citizens.

    My solution for the US? The official language should be Finnish– the language of a small, innocuous, prosperous and benevolent yet largely-neutral country which is completely unrelated to all major language families and hardly anyone speaks it as a first language in the US, so it's new to (virtually) all.

    Plus, it's almost impossible to learn, so lawmakers might actually get to the point being unable to use rhetoric and bullshit.

  37. Todd said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    Wow, I had no idea my comment would be so long.

    I sound full of myself. Maybe I am?…

  38. Tom Streetman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    As someone fluent in Japanese, I'd love to hear his legislation.

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