Beyond Words - Language Blog

Speaking Other Languages in Alabama

Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James recently created controversy with his political advertisement titled Language. The advertisement focuses on one of James’ campaign promises to eliminate driver’s license exams in all languages except English. In the ad, James says, “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

Given the diversity of the American citizenry, we decided to take a look at the data on languages spoken in Alabama. The last census shows that out of almost four million Alabama residents over the age of five, 162,483, speak languages other than English. That’s only about 5% of Alabama’s population, but the numbers are most likely dated; new census data will likely show the number of foreign language speakers in Alabama has grown significantly. Currently, the state offers driver’s license tests in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Thai, and Vietnamese. The table below, based on data from the 2000 Census, shows a small sample of the different languages spoken in Alabama. The languages offered by the driver’s license tests are highlighted in red:

The candidate is correct. Alabamians do in fact speak English, but it’s clear that they speak a number of other languages as well. James concludes his advertisement saying, “Maybe it’s the businessman in me, but we’ll save money, and it makes sense. Does it to you?”

Alabama has one of the weakest economies in the US. Recent figures show that the median household income in Alabama is one of the lowest in the country. It’s not clear how Alabama will save money by revamping a computer-automated system that’s efficient and already in place, but the message sent by such an action, that Alabama does not wish to cater to a linguistically diverse population — might work to harm the state’s economy in the long-term, as that same diversity traditionally helps to spur economic growth.

As political commentater Richard Adams of the Guardian points out:

The employers of Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Honda, among others, may be less than enthusiastic about the English-only plan, since they are the variously German, Korean and Japanese-owned companies who have billions of dollars worth of investments in the great state of Alabama. And who might have employees who want to work there. And drive cars, since they are car-makers.

The Alabama Supreme Court agrees with Adams with regard to the economics of the driver’s license question. A 2007 ruling against “Pro English” — an organization seeking to limit the languages offered to English — upheld a lower court ruling in favor of Gov. Bob Riley and other state officials. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb cited the governor’s argument that:

Permitting people with limited English proficiency to take the written portion of the exam in their native language helped them get a license, and the license fostered their assimilation into the community by increasing their access to education, employment and shopping.


ALTA first commented on Tim James’ controversial video on our Beyond Words Podcast, Language News Report. To keep up with the latest language news, you can subscribe to Beyond Words on iTunes here.