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Tsitrian: Drop the Melting Pot Nostalgia, Give the Driving Test in Spanish

Business-minded Rapid City Republican and son of World-War-2 refugees John Tsitrian joins his businessy friends in Sioux Falls in calling for the state to repeal its somewhat racist ban on giving non-English versions of the driver’s license test.

Tsitrian says his immigrant family benefited from learning English quickly through immersion 70 years ago, but that ideal (and I agree that swiftly adopting the native language of one’s new country is an ideal) isn’t practical today:

…we have to grapple with the fact that English immersion for immigrants will probably never be a fact of our state’s economic and cultural life again.  Nostalgia for our historic character as a “melting pot” doesn’t get the job of building our economy done, as a lot of South Dakota enterprises are finding out.  In Sioux Falls, the head of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors tells the Argus Leader that immigrant labor is “hugely important” to the construction trade, a fact that anybody in the Black Hills who’s had a roof installed in recent years knows first hand.  I’ve put up three roofs, two commercial and one residential, in the past four years and I’m pretty sure that each crew was close to 100% Spanish-speaking, with only the lead installer capable of communicating in a halting version of English on each job [John Tsitrian, “We Need a Multi-Lingual Workforce in South Dakota,” The Constant Commoner, 2017.09.05].

Ideally, every immigrant family would immerse itself in learning the language of its new homeland. Learning to speak English in America provides immigrants with more opportunity to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of the community. But practically, even if many immigrants aren’t hitting the books and the language tapes, we still need them to lay our shingles, milk our cows, and drive our trucks.

The situation is akin to what public education faces. Ideally, parents would take care of breakfast. But practically, not all parents do. When kids show up at school hungry in the morning, we can gripe about how parents ought to do their job, and we may complain that school breakfast programs may accommodate further lazy parenting, but practically, we need to feed those kids so they can learn.

In a small way, providing driving exams in Spanish or other foreign languages takes the pressure off immigrants to study English. But as Tsitrian says, our immediate economic needs outweigh that concern.


  1. Porter Lansing 2017-09-07 07:18

    Excellent points, John and Cory. As a chef I learned a lesson in assimilation. I could bitch and stomp around that the cooks wouldn’t use their off time (most of which was spent at their second job washing dishes or cooking in other restaurants) to learn English and make my job easier or I could assimilate. It was my immediate economic need to learn Spanish. MY ego was secondary to MY need to assimilate to the needs of the restaurant.

  2. Roger Elgersma 2017-09-07 11:29

    If they can not read the test, they can not read the road signs. In Houston they have so many that can not read that their are no pig tails on freeway ramps and exits. They have all turns in the direction that you want to go. Where two freeways meet they have bridges four high in the middle and those intersections cost $220 million each and cover over two hundred acres of prime city land each. If they want our jobs they should learn our language, my grandpa had to learn the language as well.

  3. Porter Lansing 2017-09-07 12:30

    One for the boy over at The Catholic Blog from their guru Steve Bannon … “The Catholic Church needs illegal aliens to fill their churches. The Bishops have been doing a terrible job on this issue!!” I suppose that means undocumented workers should earn a “living wage” in order to fill the collection plates, too? You got some ‘splainin’ to do, Patty.

  4. Sam@ 2017-09-07 12:38

    IF they do not know English I agree how are they going to be safe drivers. I do not want them on the road. Learn English you are welcome to drive.

    Just another way for the rich to keep wages low.

    I hope every one seenon Fox News the number if crimes and accidents caused by illegal immigrants.

    Come to America through the proper channels and act like a American -upon completion. WELCOME TO AMERICA

  5. Porter Lansing 2017-09-07 12:47

    I see what you mean, Roger and Sam@. However, you don’t either know English or not no English. You can easily know enough English to read road signs, hold a job and a conversation without knowing enough English to take a driving written exam. I know plenty of half-educated Republicans that also fit that category.

  6. Daniel Buresh 2017-09-07 15:44

    I believe communication is important. It seems like we are all more worried about what divides us rather than concentrating on what can really unify us. I believe insuring we can all communicate clearly with a single language is important. It’s a touchy subject for sure. I think our ancestors who immigrated here understood that and were willing to make concessions to become a part of this new land. I’m not sure when that changed but no one is asking for you to forget where you came from, but to make the attempt to find something in common with where you are going.

  7. John Tsitrian 2017-09-07 15:57

    Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada offer DL tests in
    Spanish. Things seem to be working out in those states.

  8. Bob Newland 2017-09-07 16:29

    According to the Taliban contingent in the SoDak legislature, John, those four states are cauldrons of Satanism.

  9. Donald Pay 2017-09-07 17:00

    Yeah, it’s ridiculous not to have the test in various languages. People can come here and drive on an international driver license for the most part anyway. Wisconsin has the test in Chinese, English, Hmong, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, and Spanish. Most non-English speakers know enough English to get by, but maybe not to take a test. They learn the cuss words first, obviously, because to drive here you have to be able to swear pretty good. Where I live we get a lot of students and professionals from non-English speaking countries, so there are driving schools here that specialize in teaching people what they need to know to drive, including any English words that are necessary. But, really, we have traffic signs designed the way they are so that you don’t need to read. Hey, it’s been long-established by cognitive science that using simply designed symbols, rather than words in any language, is much better. As far as navigating, many people have phones that translate and provide directions in their native language. Maybe South Dakota is living in the dark ages, but the rest of America has modernized. Get with it.

  10. Mr. Lansing 2017-09-07 17:41

    Mr. Buresh … I think you’re not sure when it changed because it hasn’t changed. You may be buying into propaganda sent out by the Alt-Right, Breitbart and Steve Bannon designed to disparage immigrants. I know probably more undocumented people than anyone in SoDak and none of them are refusing to learn English, embrace their little part of America or not grow in their new country. In fact, my LatinX friends and acquaintances are more American in principle than many who post on DFP.
    I’m not criticizing you Daniel. You only experience what is available to you but I’ll tell you that what I’m saying is accurate. I could post a long long list of anecdotes but that would be boring and just stories.

  11. Porter Lansing 2017-09-07 17:57

    PS … I don’t know. I guess my bottom line is why make it hard for new people just starting out? That’s just mean. It’s guaranteed that every New American’s kids will speak and write fluent English. :)

  12. happy camper 2017-09-07 19:22

    In other words, it’s just about money. Porter learned Spanish because he begrudgingly accepted he had to, to benefit himself, as employers are saying now, but in the long term a common language is essential for a united country. Short term thinking. Thanks for selling us out.

  13. Adam 2017-09-07 19:33

    You wouldn’t want rural farmers and ranchers to think they might want to learn a little bit of Spanish, would you? Deep inner fear of that very thing is the only thing keeping this weak-ass old-timey ‘fight against the coloreds’ rolling.

    Let it roll, baby, roll – you old-timey mushy brained bastards.

  14. mike from iowa 2017-09-07 19:46

    Not so sure about all new Americans learning English. Drumpf properties are being rented to wealthy Russians who are having anchor babies that most definitely won’t be sent back to Mother Russia as long as there is a buck Drumpf can make from them.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-09-08 05:13

    Can’t we accommodate both the immediate practical goal of helping immigrant workers get to work and the long-term goal of getting them to speak English? Offering driving tests in Spanish does not signal complete surrender of the goal of a common language, a goal I agree is important. Even in school, where the goal is to produce fluent English speakers, we still offer ESL assistance, with some teaching in students’ native language, to help kids over the hump. We get the job done, and, as Porter notes, within a generation, pretty much every newcomer is on the same language page.

    Most road signs are iconified, but there are plenty of warning signs (like the digital signs that flash updates) that offer important information in English. It’s in everyone’s best interest that drivers understand those signs. Motorists should also know English for interactions with police officers: if motorists can’t understand the directions a police officer gives them, they create uncertainty and delay for the police officer and increase the chance of a dangerous misunderstanding.

    But we aren’t selling out our country by providing certain public documents in foreign languages. We’re improving our economy, improving individual mobility and prosperity, and integrating more people into American life.

  16. mike from iowa 2017-09-08 08:48

    Digital signs can easily be programmed to repeat warnings in Spanish if the goal is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries. Such a minor petty courtesy should be a no brainer for people with open minds and public safety at heart.

  17. Porter Lansing 2017-09-08 08:49

    HC … How many languages do you speak? American nationalism is a weak excuse for being an under achiever.

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