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Is It Official?

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

On May 5, Senate Education, Science & Technology Committee chairwoman Margarita Ostolaza declared the local law that accords official status to both Spanish and English "dead" because it does not reflect Puerto Rico’s reality.

That very day, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, delivered his weekly radio address in Spanish. He did it himself, not through an interpreter. The Democratic congressional leadership followed suit by also delivering in Spanish their radio response to the presidential message. The White House explained the historic broadcast was not an isolated instance: the president will speak to the country in Spanish every week.

The irony behind both developments could not be more evident. President Bush is on to something. Advocates of "Spanish only" in Puerto Rico–or "English only" in some states–are not.

Sen. Ostolaza’s committee is investigating the effects of the 1993 law signed by former Gov. Pedro Rossello reinstating both Spanish and English as officials languages of the government of Puerto Rico, as they had been since early in the 20th century. The statute–the first enacted by Gov. Rossello on the very day of his inaugural–repealed a 1990 law passed by the Hernandez Colon administration declaring Spanish Puerto Rico’s sole official language.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Ostolaza investigation is to discern what has been the effect, positive or negative, of having English as an official language along with the Spanish vernacular. She argues that having English as an official language may actually be hindering our children’s ability to learn well their mother tongue.

Ostolaza and a chorus of Popular Democratic Party legislators insist that the purpose of her committee’s investigation is not political and the outcome is not predetermined. Yeah, right!

Senate president Antonio Fas Alzamora and House president Carlos Vizcarrondo are both clearly on record saying they will act to repeal the official status of English because "it does not reflect Puerto Rico’s reality" referring to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans speak Spanish and not English. Gov. Calderon has been studiedly ambiguous on the issue.

The move by the PDP legislators is clearly political. They reckon that Rossello’s motivation had nothing to do with Puerto Rico’s competitiveness in a global economy. It was, they say, a political move to advance the statehood cause. So, they figure, tit for tat.

Well, guess what? Having English as an official language will get Puerto Rico no closer to statehood than president Bush’s weekly Spanish addresses will get heavily Hispanic states closer to secession and incorporation into Mexico or Spain.

Having English as one of Puerto Rico’s official languages has nothing to do with who we are culturally but what we want to be. And we should want to be competitive in a global economy whose language is English, where many countries and jurisdictions around the world are ever more aggressively fighting it out to attract investment and do business. Regardless which language we choose to teach our children to pray, it is imperative that we send the message loud and clear to corporate boardrooms, not just on the mainland but around the world, that in Puerto Rico we do business in English.

The great majority of the people in Puerto Rico prays, talks to each other, sings and dances in Spanish. That’s part of our cultural heritage. But every day and ever more English rises as the common language of the world, the one that allows speakers of more than 100 different languages and dialects around the globe to understand each other. Clear, common understanding is particularly important in business communications and that’s why English is the language of the business world.

One of the strongest selling points used by economic development government officials and private sector leaders when they talk to potential investors is that our managerial class and even our workforce are bilingual and bicultural. Thus, they say, Puerto Rico is uniquely positioned to serve as a hemispheric bridge between the English speaking north and the Spanish-speaking south.

Neither is true. We must wake up. As our front page story reveals, bilingualism in Puerto Rico remains a distant goal. Even during the past eight years, progress in this regard was minimal. And, furthermore, to the extent that Puerto Rico is familiar with both languages and both cultures, that doesn’t make us unique in any way. Indeed, many countries in Spanish America are ahead of us, at least in English proficiency.

Being bilingual has become a requirement not just for our high level corporate executives but even for our working class. If our politicians don’t know the importance of English they just have to open the classified sections of our local papers. They’ll find out that no less than 80% of the job placement ads either are in English–automatically letting an applicant know the job requires proficiency in that language–or specifically call for bilingual ability.

As English becomes ever more a requirement for getting a job in Puerto Rico, who will suffer if more of our people don’t become bilingual? You guessed it, the people whose "reality" some politicians are supposedly trying to protect.

The trend towards bilingualism in the U.S. and indeed the whole Western Hemisphere is unstoppable. But, hey, leave it to a handful of our most visionary legislative leaders and you’ll see how we blow our unique opportunity to ride on top of that wave. It’s official.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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