A Minute With...

Randall Sadler, expert on second language acquisition

2/7/2012  8:00 am

A county judge in Yuma, Ariz., touched off a national debate when he ruled in January that Alejandrina Cabrera could not run for city council in San Luis because she isn’t sufficiently fluent in English. San Luis, with a population of about 25,000, is 98.7 percent Hispanic. Eighty-seven percent of the residents speak a language other than English in their homes. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla – twice the target of recall efforts led by Cabrera – and was affirmed Feb. 7 by the Arizona Supreme Court.

The county judge had based his decision in part on Cabrera’s ability to answer his questions in court, and in part on tests administered by a sociolinguistics expert from Brigham Young University. Cabrera is a U.S. citizen and graduated from bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma. She rates her English fluency at 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and is working with a private tutor. News Bureau news editor Dusty Rhodes spoke with U. of I. linguistics professor Randall Sadler about Cabrera’s case. Sadler also is a professor of second language acquisition and teacher education.

You earned your master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Arizona. Can you put this case into the context of the political landscape in an Arizona town that straddles the U.S. border with Mexico?

image of professor randall sadlerThe linguistic situation in all of Arizona, and particularly in the areas approaching the border, is surprisingly complex. In my dissertation, I worked with a number of students who spoke Spanish as their primary language in childhood. Some of them spent their childhoods solely in the U.S., some only in Mexico, and some spent time on both sides of the border. By the time the students I worked with reached college, I found that they could be placed into three groups: Spanish dominant, English dominant, and those whose language skills were balanced somewhere in the middle. All of the students who were raised primarily in the U.S. were proficient in English – either English dominant or balanced bilinguals (speaking both Spanish and English very well). The students who were raised in both the U.S. and Mexico, like Ms. Cabrera, were much more mixed in their English abilities, depending on how long they had lived in the U.S., where they lived (for example, on the border versus in Tucson) and what types of schools they had attended.

While there are many individuals in Arizona (and around the U.S.) who seem to fear that Spanish speakers will not integrate into the English-speaking population, my own research shows that this is not typically the case. However, it is also clear that in some of the towns closer to the border and particularly in towns like San Luis that actually straddle the border, Spanish is most certainly the dominant language heard on the street.

The law in question in this case actually goes back to the 1950s, and also to the constitution of the state upon its founding in 1910. The 20th article of that constitution mandated that state officials be able to speak, read and write English. Of course, that meant that Spanish speakers who had lived in Arizona for generations and any of the native groups in the state (the largest being the Navajo Nation) who could not speak, read, or write English were immediately ineligible for office. It is important to note that the United States has never had an “official language,” although there have been calls for this at times among some members of Congress.

After listening to an NPR segment that includes Cabrera speaking at a news conference, what sense do you get of her English skills?

The various recordings of Ms. Cabrera make clear that English is not her first language and that her English is limited. The key questions, of course, are what does limited mean, and how limited is too limited for the purpose of political communication?

Cabrera’s lawyers argued that you cannot “flunk” a test that has no specified standards. How tricky would it be to devise a test that could reliably determine a person’s qualification to run for public office?

It seems reasonable that in “high stakes” testing – and denying someone the opportunity to run for office certainly qualifies as high stakes – there must be very clearly specified standards. Major tests of English such as the TOEFL exam (used by most colleges and universities in the U.S. to determine English proficiency as part of the admissions process) have been developed over many years at the cost of millions of dollars. They are carefully designed and expensive because the results are critically important for the test takers. Even these tests are often criticized as being inadequate for their intended purposes.

Of course, as anyone who has read government documents can confirm, the language used in legislation often bears little resemblance to the language we use in our day-to-day communication. This makes the evaluation of language needed to run for office even more complex. Should candidates be tested on “Standard American English” (what we hear on major newscasts) or the language used in government documents?

Your doctorate is in the area of second language acquisition and teaching. Do most people progress toward speaking and reading a second language at the same pace as they progress toward understanding a second language? Or do the three skills develop at different rates?

As a learner of Spanish, I can definitely confirm that language skills develop at different rates. While my receptive skills in Spanish (listening and reading) are fairly advanced, my writing skills are lower, and my speaking skills lower still. In general, the productive skills (writing and speaking) lag behind the receptive skills. One reason for this is that we typically make use of our receptive skills much more than our productive skills.

In El Paso, Texas, the situation is reversed, with an incumbent city commissioner claiming that his challenger is unfit for the office because he doesn’t speak or understand Spanish well enough.

It seems to me that the key function of any elected representative is to see to the needs of their constituents.

Since the vast majority of the residents being served in both cases (El Paso and San Luis) are native speakers of Spanish, it seems reasonable to expect that their representatives should have the ability to communicate with them in that language. Of course, it is also the case that some of the residents in these areas may not speak Spanish. While the linguistic situation in areas like El Paso and San Luis is a bit more clear-cut, there are many areas in the U.S. where there is a much higher degree of linguistic diversity. For example, in San Francisco, the 2010 census data found more than 100 languages represented in that city. Finding a representative with the ability to speak, read, and write in all those languages may be problematic, to say the least. In short, we live in a very linguistically complex nation where simplistic laws related to languages may not always work out.


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