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The High Cost of Linguistic Isolation


January 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The history of English instruction in Puerto Rico accurately reflects the schizoid nature of Commonwealth status. On one hand, the political leaders of the island solemnly promised permanent association with the U.S., but on the other, they instituted local moves that guaranteed separation. Nowhere is this duplicity more evident than in the orchestrated decline of English use and comprehension.

Right after the U.S. conquest in 1898, the Official Language Act of 1902 mandated the use of English in all official activities, including public education. The obvious intent was to make P.R. an integral part of the U.S., and if you agreed with that intent, it was a sensible move. But if you did not agree, the move was perceived and criticized as a harsh and insensitive imposition of a foreign language. After years of controversy, the latter view prevailed and in 1949, Spanish was re-instituted as the language of public instruction.

Let it be noted, that throughout these years Spanish continued to be the preferred language of conversation and there is no evidence that instruction in English ever diminished the use of Spanish. The most observable result was simply the addition of a bilingual group of public school graduates—taught in English by American teachers—many of whom went on to top universities in the U.S. But that successful pattern did not suit the thinly disguised Independence longings of many Commonwealth leaders, who understood that a separate language separates as surely as a common language bonds. They knew that as long as the majority of Puerto Ricans spoke only Spanish, closer ties with the U.S. would be effectively blocked, and a separate P.R. nationalism could be developed—without the U.S. even knowing what was going on. And that is exactly what has happened.

But during the period of 1950-2000 there were a series of other highly relevant developments:

  1. English emerged as the international language, adopted by all leading nations for discussions in business, science, and diplomacy.
  2. Puerto Rico became massively addicted to U.S. financial aid which totaled $16 billion dollars in 2001—44% of the island’s GNP.
  3. Approximately 1/3 the island’s population would move to the mainland where knowledge of English was indispensable to economic progress.

Seen in this larger light, the politically motivated subtraction of English stands revealed as a short-sighted maneuver that has unnecessarily and selectively handicapped the majority of Puerto Ricans. I say selectively, because the same political leaders who piously decried the "menace" of English in public schools, made certain to send their own children to private schools, where the instruction was often in English and competence in English was assured.

The result is a two-tiered society where the 20% of the island populace who speak English get the best jobs, and the 80% that don’t are permanently relegated to lesser, lower paying jobs. This amounts to a caste system that reserves economic advantage to a small group by prescribing a language deficiency to the general populace that insures their economic disadvantage.

So while the rest of the world effectively adds English as a matter of practicality, Puerto Rico, as a matter of politics, effectively denies English—the language of its U.S. citizenship. And as a crowning irony, it is the U.S. taxpayer who is asked to finance this system of calculated neglect—to the tune of $267 million in 2001, which, by the recently passed Education Bill is due to rise to $550 million in 2007. True to form, the U.S. Congress remains asleep at the switch, and continues to indiscriminately pour federal funds into flawed programs in Puerto Rico.

The downgrading of English is a prime example of a policy that is as unfair to U.S. interests as it is to the economic future of Puerto Rico. A small island cannot afford to be linguistically isolated from the nation that supports it, or from the globalized economy that surrounds it.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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