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Sotomayor and “Proper English”

June 23rd, 2009

The right wing, especially people like Pat Buchanan, have been attacking Sonia Sotomayor in many ways, one in particular by suggesting that Sotomayor got her academic credentials via Affirmative Action when she did not in fact deserve them. Buchanan recently said this at a conference to rebuild conservative political power:

Judge Sotomayor is up there at school in New York, she gets a scholarship to Princeton, she’s graduated with all these big honors and awards they said she never won. What’s she doing there in the summer? They said her adviser told her to read children’s classics so she can learn English better. How do you graduate number one in Princeton if you’re in the summer and you’re reading Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White? [laughter]

In other attacks, Buchanan added the idea that Sotomayor had to study “basic grammar” as well. More has been said on the topic, of course, but that’s the essence: Sotomayor’s English was so poor that she had to read children’s books in order to get up to speed. How could her English be so bad and yet she’s graduating summa cum laude at Princeton? Must be Affirmative Action, Buchanan concludes. More evidence of the liberals supporting minorities by helping them get undeserved credentials just because of race.

Naturally, that’s not the reality. Here’s the snippet from the New York Times article upon which Buchanan and the others base their argument:

She spent summers reading children’s classics she had missed in a Spanish-speaking home and “re-teaching” herself to write “proper English” by reading elementary grammar books. Only with the outside help of a professor who served as her mentor did she catch up academically, ultimately graduating at the top of her class.

Is this true? Well, in Sotomayor’s own words:

“First I found that my vocabulary and writing skills were poor and I didn’t know anything about the classics. … So during my college summers, I retaught myself basic grammar, learned 10 new words a day and set up a program of reading all the books I had missed.”

A ha! Buchanan was right! Sotomayor was illiterate! Hmm, let’s see.

Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx, but during her formative language years (age 0-6) she was in primarily a Spanish-language environment; she only became “fluent” in English after her father’s death. But still, she grew up in the U.S., went to schools where English was the language of instruction. Here’s WikiPedia’s summary of her early education:

For grammar school, Sotomayor attended the parochial Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, where she was valedictorian and had a near-perfect attendance record. Sotomayor passed the entrance tests for, then commuted to, the academically rigorous parochial Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. … At Cardinal Spellman, Sotomayor was on the forensics team and was elected to the student government. She graduated as valedictorian in 1972.

What can we glean from this? Obviously, she was no academic slouch. Her language skills were also probably not so bad; you don’t get through all that without the ability to speak English fairly well.

So, how do we reconcile Sotomayor’s statements about poor language skills and re-learning basic grammar? The answer is easy: it’s all relative. When she entered Princeton, she found that she could no longer get away with small errors in grammar or less-than-perfect choices in vocabulary. When she says “poor vocabulary and writing skills,” she means “poor vocabulary and writing skills by the standards of Princeton academic requirements.” That’s a pretty significant distinction.

What Sotomayor referred to was not that she was unable to string together sentences like “see Dick and Jane run with Spot,” but that she sometimes made subtle errors in grammar and word choice which in normal language are excused, but which in demanding academic prose can cause some difficulty. Her reading of childhood classics was likely more to learn the flow and cadence of words; her vocabulary building to learn greater variety, not the basics; all of this to recognize and use the subtle distinctions rather than the gross ones. She described (pdf) her English not as simplistic, but rather as “stilted and overly complicated,” and was sorting out the subtle differences between terms such as “authority of dictatorship” and “dictatorial authority.” Hardly Dick-and-Jane-level stuff.

A lot of the left-wing criticism of Buchanan and others tends to focus on which books Sotomayor read–she read Huckleberry Finn, not Snow White, they point out–but miss the whole fact that the “re-learning basic grammar” was not about how her language was poor or admission standards lax, but instead was about how strenuous and demanding her new learning environment was. Sotomayor’s story was not one of remedial education, but of an incredibly difficult and top-notch college program in which Sotomayor excelled so much that she graduated at the top of her class.

Some conservatives might still try to attack Sotomayor for her language problems–even if she wasn’t learning how to write “See Dick and Jane” level material, she still made mistakes, right? How do you get to call yourself literate and yet still make errors that don’t even stand up to those pansy-ass liberal-elite college standards?

Well, it turns out that even the English-only crowds sometimes make an error here and there. Here’s Pat Buchanan standing under a banner at his organization’s conference:

Amer Cause Conf

Note the spelling of “conference” in the banner. And keep in mind that these folks are taking jabs at Sotomayor’s English and going on about how the U.S. should shun Spanish and maintain English as the official language.

I think some tolerance for a certain level or error-making is in order here, don’t you?

  1. oltexgal
    July 17th, 2009 at 22:09 | #1

    Judge Sotomayor made some fairly embarrassing English errors in her testimony… not so much grammarical, but incorrect MEANING in the words chosen. It’s not an issue which should deny her confirmation. She’s anything BUT “stupid”, however, a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, needs to speak and write flawless English.

    Education is a “process”. I hope she continues to hone her skills. She will, doubtless, have staff who can help her both personally and with her writings.

    Her politics alarm me, but hope she will be able to put them aside, and rule as objectively as possible, basing her decisions on existing LAW, as it is written. It is the task of Congress to make law, and she absolutely must NOT attempt make law, or “policy” from the Bench. That remains to be seen.

    I wince when anchormen, politicians, lawyers, teachers, etc., butcher English. It happens with alarming frequency…. not just among those who have learned English as a second language, but supposedly well educated, American citizens who grew up speaking English. Words have meaning! Communicating ideas precisely is a critically important skill. Could take to task members of the Judiciary Committee who where questioning her. Some filled their “media face time”, with far too much self-serving, political nitwittery. There were very important questions which needed to be posed and answered. We could have done without their hyperbole, flattery, sappy emotion, etc. Their duty was to determine her qualifications to sit on the highest court in the land, not to capaign, pander, and fawn.

    I’m a conservative who wishes Judge Sotomayor well.

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