Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thorny Question...

I wanted to pick up a question I asked at the end of my ranting post yesterday and add to it. Here was the question:

Do you think that someone who doesn't seem to speak a single word of a language should be able to get a driver's license in the country where that language is spoken? When I was at the DMV today, there was a 20s guy getting ready to take his driver's exam. The woman was asking him for his address, etc. and he just looked at her. She tried in English and French (the two official languages of Canada) and he had to call over the older man who had come up with him at first to translate (the older man had gone off to talk to someone else they came in with). I dunno - does this seem right? Maybe I was mistaken about the situation, but he was going to take his driver's test and he couldn't understand any of the instructions (like signing his name, etc.) in English or French. All the signs around here are in English.

A couple of you commented and noted that, though questions about learning a language can be quite heated (especially with things like immigration - illegal or otherwise), driving might be one of those things where it's just safer to be able to understand the signs, answer a police officer if you get pulled over, etc. And then I started thinking - how much of a language do you really need to know in order to get around in a car? Especially if you live in a close knit community and you're not taking off across country. For example, the man who lives behind us (he's called "The Farmer" according to Girl Next Door because he has a very big garden) is Greek and he barely speaks a word of English. He's been here for 34 years and he never had to learn it because he worked in a Greek restaurant for years and years (yum!) and his daughter lives with him and does all the official communication.

But I digress. Driving a car. If you're going locally and there's someone who knows the place who speaks your language, you can navigate by landmarks (turn right at the McDonald's; turn left at the big soccer fields...). As for speed, it's usually pretty safe and correct just to follow the crowd (not the psycho who's weaving in and out of lanes). The reason why I ask this is that I have an uncle who is technically illiterate - he probably has some basic literacy skills (he can sign his name) and he can recognize street signs, etc. He's been driving for over 30 years and he drives cross country. But he can read numbers on a map for sure (take I-95 north...). But I also used to teach adult literacy and most of my students could not even write their names. Their families drove them around (although one woman student of mine got her driver's license at age 45 - I was so proud of her!)

So, I guess it would be possible for them to drive around just fine - but safety? There are so many older people on the road who can read a book a day in seven languages, but shouldn't be driving a car! The only thing I can't figure out is the test - how would you pass the driver's test without knowing English or French?

I know that there are lots of arguments about this, but my initial reaction to these things tends to be: if you live in a country, you should speak enough of the language to communicate important things (not necessarily emotions, etc. but basic and potentially important information). And certainly if you're going to work in that country...but I'm interested to know what others think!!



At 6:08 PM, Blogger KLee said...

I'm not saying you have toi be fluent, or even multi-lingual in order to drive a car, but you should at least be able to recognize some simple signs -- stop, yield, no passing, railroad, etc -- so that when you encounter a hazard, you're both aware of the hazard, and can undertstand what it is you're facing. It's all well and good to know the street signs in whatever country you were born in, but if that isn't currently where you reside, and the posted signs are in a completely different language, you'd probably fare better if you could at least decipher some of them.

I'm not saying all immigrants should be denied licenses, just that there are some basic things one should know about driving in whatever country you happen to be in. Natives of the US have to take a pretty intensive test when they first apply for a license, and I could see where someone applying for one for the first time here in the US should have to pass that same test.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

I totally agree with you! Hell, if immigrants couldn't get licenses, I'd be outta luck (being a new immigrant myself!). Fortunately I don't have to take a new driver's test (which I'd probaly fail - not from linguistic challenges, but b/c I don't remember anything about distances for high beam headlights, etc.) - I just have to show that I've had a valid license in my country for more than 3 years. From what I remember of the driver's test in the US, you do have to be semi-fluent to answer the questions, so I agree that we should all have to pass the same test. I'm not sure whether they give them in different languages or not.

I was just thinking last night about the actual driving of a car in a town and realized that it would be *possible*, with good directions, to drive a car and get around without knowing how to read or speak a language. And the signs are color and shape specific to make it even easier (I don't know if a stop sign is shaped the same in, say, Ghana, as it is in the US and Canada). And who knows - the kid might not have passed his test! It just struck me as highly odd that he couldn't give his address and personal info, but he was there to take a driver's test. :)

On a tangential note - I was thinking back to my driver's test days (the practical, not the written) and I got the one notorious curmudgeon in town as my test dude - he told me to use my head for something other than hanging earrings on. I was almost sobbing by the time I finished the test, but he said "I'm passing you - just barely! - because I hope you'll improve". The one thing I did right, apparently, is parallel park.

Now, back then my hair was HUGE and my earrings were very large and dangly (care to guess at the decade?) but I think that's where my problematic relationship with the DMV began...


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