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Puerto Rico: Bilingual Schools Revive Debate on Language

The Puerto Rican government's announcement that starting in the new school year beginning next August, the language in which classes are taught throughout the country's public schools will gradually change from Spanish to English, has provoked strong reactions from supporters as well as critics.

The measure, driven by the Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, seeks to have all of the country's public schools teaching classes in English within the next ten years, with the exception of Spanish and history, with the aim of having the population's youth being completely bilingual by the end of this time period.

Teaching classes in English in Puerto Rico's public schools is something that the country already lived through during the first half of the 20th century.  The United States government, which had recently invaded the former Spanish colony in 1898, imposed a law in 1900 [es] that stated that all public schools must teach their classes in English as part of a project for the “Americanization” of the Puerto Rican population.  The project failed from the start, but it was not until 1948 that Spanish was established as the official language in education.

With the memory of those years still alive throughout a large portion of the country's population, the fact that the initiative for bilingual schools has clear political motivations does not come as a surprise.  On his blog, ortizfeliciano [es], Roberto “Pachi” Ortiz Feliciano says:

Fortuño, tras negarlo, busca implantar el “English only” para congraciarse con el Partido Republicano y sometemos que su propuesta es principalmente motivada por sus muy personales ambiciones.

Fortuño, after denying it, looks to institute the “English only” initiative to establish himself in good graces with the Republican Party and we submit that his proposal is motivated mainly by his very personal ambitions.

For many it seems as though public schools do not have the capacity to effectively educate people who dominate both languages, and people have talked about how they learned English without the help of any formal classes.  Twitter user @ᶥᵗˢ K! highlighted, as proof of her English fluency without the help of a class, her high score on a standardized test designed to show fluency in English:

@EpicPachi: Series gringas y Videojuegos. Un TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] mejor que varios de “escuelas bilingües” lo demuestran.

@EpicPachi: American television shows and video games.  A TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] demonstrate it better than various “bilingual schools.”

Nevertheless, others are of the opinion that it would be quite advantageous for all students to study in an immersion program of sorts much like the one the government proposes, as Paola Alcazar expressed on Twitter:

@palcazarh: Yo soy fruto de escuela pública y hoy en día desearía haber estudiado en colegio bilingüe.

@palcazarh: I am a product of public schooling and today I would like to have studied in a bilingual school.

On his blog [es], Kofla Olivieri is shocked at the idea that people who are not fluent in English would want to impose that on the rest of the public [es]:

…el gobernador Fortuño, decidió implementar Inglés en nuestras escuelas sin consultar con los maestros que son los responsables de educar a nuestros hijos en el contrayao idioma. A pesar que muchos de ellos, nuestros maestros, no saben hablar Inglés. Esto incluye la gran mayoría de nuestros honorables legisladores, los que quieren impulsar esta idiotez, que TAMPOCO saben hablar Inglés.

… Governor Fortuño decided to implement English in our schools without consulting the teachers [es], who are responsible for teaching our children the damned language.  Despite this, many of them — our teachers — do not speak English.  This includes the large majority of our honorable legislators, those who want to implement this idiocy and ALSO do not speak English [es].

Héctor Meléndez, writing for online magazine 80 grados, has a different opinion [es]:

La sugerencia de algunos independentistas y autonomistas de que los políticos del PNP [Partido Nuevo Progresista] hacen el ridículo al reclamar la imposición del inglés sin saber inglés sugiere un prejuicio clasista, tal vez insensible hacia el significado que le dan los pobres a poder acceder al inglés. Precisamente porque anexionistas de mayor edad no saben inglés es que desean que sus hijos lo aprendan. Su ignorancia no les resta autenticidad, sino que en cierto modo la expresa.

The suggestion from those in favor of independence and autonomy that the PNP [New Progressive Party-which is pro-statehood] politicians are making fools of themselves by demanding the implementation of English without speaking the language suggests a classist prejudice, perhaps insensitive to the significance that the poor give to the power of learning English.  It is precisely because older annexationists cannot speak English that they want their children to learn it.  Their ignorance does not take their authority away, but rather expresses it to some degree.

The consensus among critics of the so-called bilingual schools project seems to be that it is advantageous and necessary to learn English, but not at the cost of the vernacular language and not to merely better compete in markets on the global level.  According to Ed Morales [es], who also writes for 80 grados, bilingualism is good if it is part of a space where cultural exchange is constantly developing:

Es un bilingüismo que nos informa que el gobierno no tiene el derecho de negar acceso a los procesos legislativos ni pegarnos en la cabeza cuando protestamos. Es una expresión de la negritud, como hablan los reggaetoneros y los pleneros sin aparentemente hablar inglés. Es un bilingüismo que acaba con el puertorriqueño dócil (que en realidad nunca existía), que convierte el vacilón en acción.

It is bilingualism that informs us that the government does not have the right to deny access to legislative processes nor hit us in the head when we protest.  It is an expression of négritude, as the reggaeton and plena musicians talk without evidently speaking English.  It is a bilingualism that ends with the docile Puerto Rican (which, in reality, never existed), who changes the joke to action.
The image used in this article is owned by Gage Skidmore, under the  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY SA 2.0) License. Visit Gage Skidmore's photo collection on  Flickr.

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