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English Makes The Business World Go ‘Round


May 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico has long rested on the laurels of its alleged bilingualism as an advantage over other countries. But as more Latin American and European countries polish English as their competitive weapon in the global economy, the wake up call may be coming.

English has been the lingua franca of business around the world for many years, but today’s global economy has further expanded its role, making it the language of science, technology, the Internet, and mass communications. With a bilingual rate of about 20%, according to the Puerto Rico Education Department, the island may already lag behind Latin American countries aggressively seeking to achieve much higher levels of bilingualism in English and Spanish.

"English is the language of globalization," said Education Secretary Cesar Rey. "But for the population to become proficient in English it is essential that they also be provided the tools to pursue perfection in Spanish, the island’s vernacular."

Despite highly touted efforts by the previous administration to create a bilingual citizen, most observers agree that bilingual education in Puerto Rico is still only a goal, not a reality. A bilingual and bicultural workforce is important for the island, especially because Puerto Rico serves as a connection between Latin American, European, and North American commercial endeavors, said Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce President Luis Torres Llompart.

"It is also important for Puerto Rico’s population to exploit bilingual skills and biculturalism because this is an advantage not found anywhere else in Latin America," he said, adding that the island’s population has evolved from being a source of cheap labor to one that is sophisticated and highly skilled. "Puerto Rico’s natural resource is its people."

But is it still the case that Puerto Rico’s bilingual skills are unique in the Latin world? Not anymore, according to statistics.

We’ve got competition

In Costa Rica, 23% of the population is officially listed as being fully bilingual in English and Spanish, according to Alexander Montero, that country’s general consul in Puerto Rico. Those with English skills are mainly found in urban areas. "People over 17 years of age [in those areas] are all practically bilingual," he said, adding that by the end of 2002 Costa Rica’s government expects 30% of the country’s population to be fluent in English and Spanish.

In Paraguay, there are four widely spoken languages —Guarani, Spanish, English, and German--according to Maria E. Ponce de Leon, Paraguay’s general consul in Puerto Rico. At noon and at 6 p.m. each day all radio stations give news reports in those four languages. Ponce de Leon said an estimated 70% of the population can communicate in English, and English & French are mandatory languages taught in Paraguay’s high school system.

Many Chileans are also bilingual. According to a study by The British Council regarding the use of teaching and learning of English in Latin America, English is taught in primary and secondary schools in Chile in both the private & public schools. University students are required to read English for the latest information in their fields and information published by international organizations is often in English.

Argentina’s population also speaks more than one language. According to The World Factbook 2000, published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that country’s official language is Spanish, but English, Italian, German, and French are also widely spoken.

And proficiency in English is not just being pursued in Spanish-speaking countries. In Europe, English education also is making greater strides.

A Eurobarometer survey that examined the linguistic skills of 16,000 of the European Union’s citizens suggested that English is well on its way to becoming the language used to communicate across borders. It also found that more non-British Europeans accept the idea that all Europeans should learn English. In fact, the study revealed that more than 40% of people surveyed claimed to know English as a foreign language, and that 69% believe that everyone should speak English.

An article published in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper in March predicted that "by 2050, half of the world’s population will be able to speak English or will be fluent enough to use it actively in cultural or financial exchanges."

"The growth of English is due exclusively to the economic power of the countries where it is spoken. Once it was a communication instrument for the British Empire while nowadays, in a slightly different way, it is the language of American multinationals, of advertising, and modern culture," the article stated. It goes on to attribute the further expansion of English to the Internet.

According to The British Council, a network for education, culture, and development services, 80% of the Internet’s information is in English.

Job opportunities lost

How important is it for Puerto Rico’s labor force to speak English? Just look at the numbers.

Carlos Rodriguez, president of Management Recruiters International, an executive search company specializing in the sales and marketing industry, said 95% of their clients are headquartered in the U.S. or Europe, while the remaining 5% are local. "All U.S. and European companies require fully bilingual candidates, while 80% or 90% of the local companies we cover require candidates that can effectively communicate in English."

Rupert Amy, CEO and president of Careers Inc., one of the largest executive search firms in Puerto Rico, said English is important in every industry and required by his company’s clients. "If you want to move up to executive positions you must be bilingual," he said. Still, Amy said only four out of every 10 local candidates interviewed at Careers Inc. for managerial positions are fully bilingual. While many are good in spoken English, a much lower percentage can read or write English well enough for many job opportunities.

One industry especially affected by the relatively low availability of bilingual personnel is tourism. "The need for a bilingual workforce is imperative, it is something that hotel managers and human resources executives within the industry are always bringing up in conversations," said Carolyn Dalmau, executive administrator of the Scholarship Foundation for Hotel and Tourism Studies —an arm of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association.

The scholarship foundation Dalmau represents offers local tourism students the opportunity to study in U.S. colleges and universities and polish their English skills while obtaining a degree. She noted that already two of the recipients of the scholarship have worked their way up to executive positions in local hotels.

James Holleran, dean of the International School of Tourism at the Colegio Universitario del Este (CUE), said local public schools (where most of his students originate) place too much emphasis on reading and writing skills and not enough on verbal communication skills. "The impression I have from the two and a half years I’ve been in Puerto Rico is that students who come from public schools can read or write English much better than they can speak it," he said, noting that professional tourism classes are given in English. "The school doesn’t retain as many students as we would like, and this is very probably because of their lack of English communication skills."

A needs-assessment project implemented by sophomore students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, under the sponsorship of the Colegio Tecnologico de San Juan, found that English language skills must be stressed in local public schools. This is because while students study the tourism curriculum while in college or technical schools, not enough emphasis can be given to English language skills at this level. If students do not learn to communicate in English while in elementary or high school, they may not be able to develop the language skills needed to obtain the best positions in the industry. "You can’t leave it to the colleges to make students bilingual, you can’t expect them to perform miracles in two or four years," Holleran said.

Holleran has found that although many people in tourist-oriented areas, such as Condado and Isla Verde, can communicate in English, fluent English speakers are hard to come by outside those areas. This, he said, could impair the tourism industry from spreading beyond the areas it now occupies.

Reinhard Werthner, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, said although it is not impossible for non-English speakers to find jobs in tourism, they will be relegated to back-of-the-house positions. "More bilingual candidates would be perfect, especially in hotels where all employees have some kind of contact with guests. Sometimes we hire non-bilingual persons based on their skills," he said.

Werthner has noticed from his experience at the Westin Rio Mar Resort that many employees who can speak English are afraid to do so. "I see them hesitate when speaking English, and I have also seen that when they don’t understand something they are afraid to ask for clarification." Holleran agreed, saying that he has noticed that when he speaks to students in English they do not respond because they are reluctant to speak the language, even if they understand everything he says to them.

Meanwhile, many other industries also need bilingual personnel. Ana Maria Morell, director of the coordination department at the Pan American Language Institute, said her institute works with middle and top management executives from all sorts of industries, including pharmaceutical manufacturing, banking, retail, and insurance companies. "I would say that 70% of companies in Puerto Rico need bilingual personnel," she said.

"Being bilingual is an advantage to everyone in the work force, but it is essential if you are in a top management position," said Angel Alvarez, president of FirstBank. He said the majority of bank officials and managers at FirstBank speak English, but there are some tellers who may not. "It depends on the position. Top executives must speak English, but for the rest of the employees it is not strictly required, although it is an advantage if they want to move up."

"Being bilingual is advantageous to the employees, to the company they work for, and to Puerto Rico," said Agustin Marques, executive director of the Pharmaceutical Industry Association. He added that being bilingual is a competitive advantage, especially in this high-tech, highly skilled, multinational industry.

Betzy Barbosa, executive director of the Insurance Company Association, said the local insurance industry depends on reinsurers for their coverage on the island.

Insurance companies share the insurance risk with large-capital multinational companies in the insurance business. Reinsurers allow a primary insurer to limit its own liability on specific risks, thereby increasing the individual insurers' capacity, enabling it to share liability so losses won’t overwhelm its resources.

"All reinsurers are based in foreign countries, mainly the U.S. and Europe, and the language most used to communicate with them is English," Barbosa said, adding that it is important for employees in the insurance industry to be bilingual because it has become a high-tech industry and key documents are printed in English or Spanish.

The issue is education

A document published in 1997 by the Education Department—then under former Secretary Victor Fajardo— called "Project to Form a Bilingual Citizen," proposed that students should be prepared so they can effectively react to the challenges in a global economy. "Learning English is not only vital to Puerto Ricans, it is vital to all the citizens of the world. As an international language, English is the official mode of communication."

But much remains to be done for Puerto Rico to become at least functionally bilingual. "Despite the efforts of the Education Department, the truth is that the (English) language is not being learned in our schools. Even when students take English classes for 50 minutes every day during their 12 school [undergraduate] years, at graduation 90% of the students can’t even have a simple conversation in English," reads the document. The department also found that assessment tests given islandwide found that proficiency in English came in last with 19%; and, some school districts obtained less than 10%.

This trend can also be observed in College Board tests. In 1997, only 19% of the students taking the tests passed the English part with average or above-average scores. This, some industry officials say, has serious implications for the island’s ability to attract or expand investments.

Many reasons have been given for the lack of English language skills in Puerto Rico. These include deficient teaching methods, lack of competence of teachers in the English language, and cultural resistance.

The document also stated that "the great majority of these professionals (English teachers) are not certified as English teachers and feel practically unable to give their maximum when teaching this language."

An unfortunate truth is that many teachers are assigned to English classes yet they do not have a strong grasp of the language nor an adequate preparation in the subject matter.

New Progressive Party (NPP) Senator Migdalia Padilla, who is a ranking member of the Senate’s Education, Science & Technology Committee; explained that teachers for kindergarten through third grade are in charge of teaching five general subjects —English, Spanish, Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies. These teachers are only required to have a bachelor’s degree with a major in Education, and do not have to become specialists in a specific subject matter, such as English.

On the other hand, teachers in junior high and high school are required to be specialists in a specific subject matter when it should be the other way around, according to Padilla. She said teachers in elementary schools should be the specialists, especially when it comes to English, because it is in the primary grades where students develop their language skills.

Popular Democratic Party Senator Margarita Ostolaza, chairwoman of the Senate’s Education, Science & Technology Committee, agreed with Padilla. She said that an investigation concerning the effects of the law that made English and Spanish the island’s official languages in 1993, which is still in effect , has found that the Education Department does not require elementary school teachers to have a strong background in either English or Spanish education. This is of great concern, according to Ostolaza, who agrees with Secretary of Education Cesar Rey that in order to learn English as a second language, we must first perfect the vernacular, Spanish.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS interviewed English teachers who stressed that all the blame for the language deficiencies of students should not go to teachers exclusively.

"To learn a second language effectively, you need to be in an environment where you are surrounded by the language you want to learn. If students are not able to practice the skills they learn in school when they’re at home or elsewhere, they will not be able to learn a second language," said Wallace Rodriguez, a public high school English teacher.

Regarding the lack of specialization of teachers, Nancy Cardona, who teaches English to seventh and eighth graders, said "Since the creation of the Organic Law [in 1989 which requires that educators teach only in their areas of specialization], the Education Department has been trying to place public school teachers in positions where they can teach the subject they specialized in." Still, the teachers agreed that specialization in a specific subject matter should also be required of elementary school teachers.

Cultural resistance and the politicization of the English language are also obstacles for the island’s population to overcome in order to become proficient in both languages, according to industry and education officials.

The politicization of English

"Language has become a political issue in Puerto Rico," said Rey, adding that the false dichotomy between English and Spanish must be erased. The teachers interviewed by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS agreed emphatically, saying that as long as education continues to be mixed with politics, the situation will not improve.

Likewise, Rupert Amy said such dichotomy "is a menace to the island’s development. We are still involved in a debate over whether we should learn English or not and we are not looking at the future."

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s economic rivals —some of them prospering Asian countries, such as Singapore— are doing everything in their power to have a work force that can communicate clearly in English, Amy said.

The Reuters news agency recently published an article describing the efforts of Singapore’s government to urge the population to perfect its spoken English skills. According to the article, Singaporeans speak "Singlish," a dialect that mixes the four main languages spoken in the country —English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil. The problem is that this dialect is incomprehensible to non-Singaporeans, and with Singapore looking to become a key player in international business, properly spoken English is vital. For this reason, Singapore’s government is currently launching the Speak Good English campaign for the second time in two years.

While Puerto Rico’s competitors are honing their English skills to become aggressive players in the international business arena, what is the island doing?

"We will be working intensely this summer to improve teachers’ language skills in both English and Spanish via a pilot program," said Rey, adding that the schools where these summer pilot programs will be held have already been identified. "We are going to intensify teachers’ education. We want to find out how to make the material they teach pertinent (to the island’s situation)," he explained. "We have to begin thinking where we are going as a country."

Bilingual programs in public schools for a chosen few

The past administration implemented intensive English programs in 17 schools throughout the island. The goal was to bring students’ English skills to the same level as that of students at private, English-intensive schools, widely known for producing fully bilingual students.

Data provided by the local offices of The College Board show that since 1985, the average score obtained by public school students in the test’s English part is 422.5, while private school students have obtained an average score of 524.5.

But officials at these schools stated that they are not precisely bilingual schools, as they were called during last year’s election campaign, but schools in which dual language or immersion programs are offered to some students.

The catch is that while the teachers at these schools are sometimes hand-picked by the principals, just as in private schools, the island’s regular public schools do not have a choice as to what teacher is hired, according to Jesus Soto Carrillo, principal of the Joaquin Vazquez Cruz School in Camuy. This means that schools which get to pick their teachers will hire the best they can find, while the rest end up with the teachers who are likely not as well prepared. In many of these public schools, only a few grades participate in the intensive bilingual program, and in many cases only the best students have access to these programs.

Soto Carrillo, whose school offers students a dual language program from kindergarten through the ninth grade, said he has noticed that many of the newly graduated English teachers are not well prepared. He added that regular public school teachers are assigned to the schools by the Education Department according to a predefined list, but that he had the opportunity to personally interview and select the teachers that would work at his school. This, he said, has been a very important factor in the success of his school’s dual language program because his teachers are specialists in bilingual education.

On the other hand, Nereida Ramirez, deputy administrator of the Ricardo Arroyo Laracuente School in Dorado, said the teachers at her school were assigned there through the Education Department’s list. Still, she said English teachers are required to submit evidence that they specialize in the teaching of that language. Only the eighth grade participates in the bilingual program, which also offers its science & mathematics courses in English, said Ramirez.

Norma Perez Colon, principal of the Ramon de Jesus Sierra School in Lares, said her school’s bilingual program is similar to the one at the Ricardo Arroyo Laracuente School in Dorado because it includes mathematics, science, and English classes. According to data she provided, the program was available to 29 of the school’s 734 students. Students in grades seven through nine participated.

Perez Colon said an average of 80% of the 29 students passed all three English intensive classes with a grade point average of 3.50 out of 4.00 or higher in the first semester of school year 2000-2001.

These officials said there is a state of uncertainty as to whether the bilingual programs will be expanded or eliminated. They haven’t heard from the Education Department.

Aguadilla’s Immersion Lab, a school that provides an intensive English and Spanish program to some 220 top-notch high school students who come from all parts of the island, is currently under evaluation by the Education Department. Padilla said students from that school are worried that this program —which they claim made them bilingual— will be eliminated.

And bilingual education remains under evaluation in Puerto Rico.

. Fluency in English is key to better jobs

Better working conditions and an above-average salary are two of the benefits today’s local job seekers can enjoy if they have one special ability: fluency in English. According to the largest human resources firms on the island, this applies to the top executives, middle management, clerical or technical professionals, even entry level positions.

"If you want to climb the corporate ladder you must be bilingual," said Rupert Amy, CEO and president of Careers, Inc., adding that "many qualified professionals are not considered for management jobs because they are not able to speak English fluently, but those candidates who do speak English get the job even when they are less qualified."

Carlos Rodriguez, president of Management Recruiters International of Puerto Rico, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that, "if you don’t know English, you will not be hired by the companies that pay the best salary." He also noted that job candidates who speak English and apply for clerical positions are usually paid 20% more than those who do not speak English.

A source at a temporary employment firm said that, "an employee who doesn’t speak English loses double because the vast majority of employers seek bilingual candidates." He added that up to 75% of U.S.-based companies in Puerto Rico require bilingual candidates. "There are not many unemployed bilingual persons in the island," he concluded.

Island companies spend money for better communications skills

 "Some local companies have invested more than $2 million a year to improve employees’ language skills," said Cesar Rey, the Puerto Rico secretary of education. Interviews with language schools established on the island confirmed this statement. The need to improve communication skills–both Spanish and English, even more so—affects all sorts of industries, from retail and manufacturing to banking and tourism.

David Merida, country manager of the local operations of Berlitz, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that approximately 35% of the schools’ revenues come from students who are referred by their employers. He also noted that the vast majority of these students are from middle to top management positions. "These are the positions that require the executive to be fully bilingual because they will be doing business with people from different parts of the world." According to him, 65% of these students come to polish English skills, while 35% come to improve their Spanish.

Merida added that the students are referred from all kinds of industries. Among Berlitz clients are Merck, Ortho McNeill, Eli Lilly, U.S. Customs, Walgreens, Walmart, Andersen Consulting, Cosmair Caribe, BFI, Sunstrand, Wyndham, Ritz-Carlton, and many others.

Ana Maria Morell, director of the coordination department at the Pan American Language Institute, said that her institute’s student body is very similar to that of Berlitz. "About 56% of our students come to us referred by their employers so they can learn to communicate in English," she said, adding they mainly work in middle to top management positions, also mirroring the Berlitz student profile.

"Our students come from a wide array of industries," she continued. "They come from pharmaceuticals, banks, insurance companies, the food & beverage industry, and more." She explained that executives are required to be bilingual because they have to be able to communicate with their companies’ headquarters, which in many cases are established in the U.S. or Europe. She also said that being able to express themselves in English and Spanish is necessary when dealing with suppliers, who may also be established in the U.S. or Europe.

The battle over official languages

Once again the battle over the official language or languages has broken out, confirming how local linguistics are affected by political ramblings. Should Puerto Rico’s official languages continue being English and Spanish or should the official language be changed to Spanish alone, as was done by ex-governor Rafael Hernandez Colon in 1991?

New Progressive Party Senator Migdalia Padilla, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS why Puerto Rico’s official languages should be English and Spanish, despite the fact that only a small portion of the island’s population is able to communicate in English.

"We have to understand that Puerto Rico is not a nation, it is a territory of the U.S. We have two flags and two languages. Having Spanish and English as our official languages demonstrates a commitment to the U.S. When ex-governor Rafael Hernandez Colon made Spanish the island’s only official language in 1991, it was a big blow to our relationship with the U.S.," said Padilla. "All of our public agencies receive federal funding, and if English is not used in government, how are these agencies going to make budget requests?"

Popular Democratic Party Senator Margarita Ostolaza has a different point of view. "After former governor Pedro Rossello made English and Spanish Puerto Rico’s official languages in 1993, many of the government’s communications were being written in English only, when the vast majority of Puerto Ricans do not speak English. The official language is the language in which the government of a country communicates with its people, and the language in which the people communicate with their government. Clearly, in Puerto Rico such language is Spanish," Ostolaza said.

Still, she emphasized that this does not mean that Puerto Ricans should not learn English. On the contrary, she said that it is very important that the population learns to speak English, not only because of the island’s relationship with the U.S., but also because it is the language of technology, science, international commerce, and diplomacy. If Spanish alone were the island’s official language, the Puerto Rico government would still need to communicate with the governments of other countries, she said. And that communication would be in English because English is the language of international communication. "Obviously, our government will still communicate in English with the U.S. and other countries."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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