There's something about driving around in Wisconsin that has always amazed me: The fact that you don't have to really understand English in order to do it.
"There is not a minimum English language proficiency requirement" here for folks interested in getting a driver's license, confirmed Donna Brown-Martin, the state's director of the Bureau of Driver Services.
Drivers do "at least need to be able to understand what our instructors are telling them" during the on-the-road portion of the driver's license test, she said. "If he tells them to take a left turn, they need to be able to understand that."
But written tests for Wisconsinites who want to drive cars or light trucks are administered in everything from Chinese to Hmong, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Somali and Spanish, as well as English. Commercial driver's license tests are generally available in English, Spanish, Russian, Polish and Serbo-Croatian. Interpreters, she said, are also sometimes provided.
"Right now we provide opportunities and assistance for anyone who comes in the door and needs help," she said. "Our tests are written at a fifth-grade competency level. There is not even a requirement to be able to read to take the test."
Like drivers who take written tests in English, those who take them in foreign languages are often asked to identify certain signs, though only by shape or symbol.
Most states, it appears, are similar to Wisconsin, although it appears at least a handful require license applicants to pass tests in English. Until actual road signs and informational signs are written in Chinese, Hmong, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Somali and Spanish, which would require some fairly large signs, requiring folks to know enough English to take a driver's test seems like common sense. Unless you're an auto-body repair guy who makes a lot of cash off accidents.
I started thinking about the driver's license issue because of another, completely separate story about a guy by the name of Ezelagu Obasi.
Obasi may very well be a smart guy. According to a recent court of appeals decision, he has a doctoral degree and was hired by the Milwaukee School of Engineering to teach chemistry. He also, however, does not always communicate as well as some others would like.
Although the chairman of the Department of Physics and Chemistry, Matey Kaltchev, "had some difficulty communicating with Obasi because English is not Obasi's first language," Kaltchev hired Obasi because he had prior teaching experience, according to the appeals court decision.
The gig, though, was short-lived.
Obasi told me he didn't want to talk to the press, which is unfortunate because the decision states that he continues to dispute some of the facts presented as background in the decision. At least according to the opinion, though, the school terminated Obasi after receiving emails from seven students outlining difficulties they had communicating with the professor and expressing concern about the way he ran his classes. Obasi countered with a breach-of-contract lawsuit that failed at the circuit court level.
The professor appealed, arguing that he had been denied due process, and contending that letters of complaint from the students contained false allegations. But he lost again at the appeals court, where judges ruled, among other things, that there was credible evidence he "was unable to effectively communicate with students."
You have to admire the man for striving so hard to succeed in a place where he is not a native speaker - just as you have to acknowledge the struggles of folks who want to drive in a land that uses a language foreign to them. But it's hard to be an effective teacher without being an effective communicator. Just like it's hard to imagine being a successful driver, or a safe one, if you can't pass a test in English.