Two great American phenomena, the melting pot and the automobile, meet at the D.C. Department of Transportation, where the written driver's license test is given in 13 foreign languages.
The department's Motor Vehicle Services Bureau first began giving the test in languages other than English about 25 years ago--no one seems to remember what the first foreign language was. Gradually, as various embassies requested permission for their nationals to take the test in their own languages, the list grew longer and longer, said Larry Greenberg, the bureau's deputy assistant director.
"We are the nation's capital, which brings a lot of people from other countries to live here," said Greenberg.
Of the 70,000 written driving tests given in the 1982 fiscal year, almost 10 percent were given in a foreign language, Greenberg said. By far the largest number were in Spanish (3,917), reflecting the large Hispanic population that has settled in Washington.
And Spanish is the only language other than English that is programmed into the computers administering the written test (as opposed to the road test) in the District. The computerized testing service has been bilingual since it was introduced in 1974, Greenberg said. All other foreign language tests are the old-fashioned way: paper and pens.
Other applicants who took advantage of the foreign-language testing in 1982 were native speakers of French (455), followed by Chinese (367) and then Arabic (224). Other languages in which the bureau is prepared to administer tests include German, Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, Italian, Laotian and Polish (the least-used foreign test in 1982, with 10 applicants requesting it).
When permission is given to add a language to the list, the requesting embassy translates the bureau's learner's manual and the test. After the State Department approves the translations, the embassy makes the manual available to its nationals and the bureau administers the test, Greenberg explained.
Applicants who take the test in foreign languages still have to be able to read the universal signs like "Stop," "Yield" and "Turn Right" in English to pass the test, said James Nance, chief of the Bureau's permit control division.
There is a slightly different procedure for those who do not already come to the District with a valid license and must therefore take the road test as well as the written test in order to get a D.C. license. All road examiners speak only English. When an applicant has trouble understanding, "We get through by using a form of pidgin-English," said chief examiner Billie Shivak. "Instead of telling them directions, we point."
For a long time, Maryland gave driver's licence tests "in 13 or 14 languages." But the state discontinued the practice a few years ago after judges and police officers criticized the motor vehicle licensing bureau for "licensing people who could not even ask a peace officer for directions in English ," according to Maj. William Mack, assistant director of drivers' licensing in Maryland.
Currently the Maryland driver's test is available only in English and Spanish, Mack said. In Virginia, a foreign applicant is allowed to take an oral test.