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April 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Juanita Can’t Speak English

Juanita is a fictional child from Puerto Rico who, with her parents, moves to Florida and enters into the public school system. For five years she has studied in a Puerto Rico public school, each day taking the proscribed 50 minutes of English instruction. On her arrival in Florida, she expects to be admitted to the next primary school grade but meets with a surprise. She does not qualify to move on to the next year. Testing indicates that she is so deficient in English that she will not succeed at that level.

Juanita has a difficult – and often painful – road ahead.

The Orlando Sentinel this week published an extensive study of the language problems faced by Puerto Rican children arriving on the mainland in increasing numbers as their parents seek employment unavailable on the island. Often mom and dad believe that their youngsters will do fine in their new language environment because in Puerto Rico they "have studied English in school." When their child comes home in tears with the news that they have been held back, the reality sinks in.

English instruction in the public schools of Puerto Rico is generally deficient!

Another shock for new arrivals on the mainland is that bilingual education for non-English speakers is often not available in all school districts on the mainland. In Florida, the option for those deficient in English is to enter into the state’s "English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and remain in it until the student’s communication skills in English are considered adequate to continue to advance to higher grades.

In the Sentinel’s exposé, most of the blame for Juanita’s situation is placed at the doorstep of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, responsible for an English curriculum that falls short of preparing students for eventual use of the language in higher education and job settings requiring English. According to evidence gathered by reporters, "thousands of Puerto Rican students are arriving in Florida unable to read, speak or write English well, (which sets) them up for potential failure in an educational system that increasingly judges students by standardized test scores." Last year in Florida, only half of Puerto Rican students transferring from Puerto Rican public schools scored at their grade level in use and comprehension of English.

Reasons cited for Puerto Rico’s failure to adequately prepare public school students in English include:

  • Too little class time devoted to English language instruction.
  • A shortage of qualified English teachers. Few are native speakers of English and many lack adequate training in English instruction.
  • A shortage of materials designed for teaching English, especially in conversational usage.
  • Limited funds for English teaching programs.
  • Political opposition to English teaching in Puerto Rico by separatists and Spanish purists.

Another overriding reason for English language deficiency among Puerto Rican youth, according to the report, is that it is rarely used outside of the classroom setting. Even though they are exposed to English language on cable television, Puerto Rican kids use Spanish exclusively in peer situations and in the home.

Until there is a change in these conditions, limited English will continue to mean limited opportunities for individuals and students who migrate to the mainland to enroll in schools where English is the only language of instruction. English deficiency among Puerto Ricans is a problem for the island’s economy and the personal advancement of many individuals as well.

For evidence of this, check the employment ads in Puerto Rican newspapers and notice how most good jobs require a working knowledge of both English and Spanish. An island that depends heavily on tourism and international trade must have a bilingual workforce. By law, Puerto Rico has two official languages, Spanish and English, meaning that the staffs of its agencies and departments should be fluent in both languages. A U.S. territory wherein its residents are U.S. citizens should provide all its youth with a thorough grounding in English.

But it is not happening. In fact, there are strong moves to weaken the emphasis on the use of English in Puerto Rico.

Only last year, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) majority in the Puerto Rico Senate passed a resolution making Spanish the exclusive official language of the island. It failed to become law, since Governor Sila Calderon opposed it, but it did give an indication of the link between language and status politics. A previous PDP Governor, Rafael Hernandez Colon, tried the same thing in 1991, but it was narrowly defeated in an island-wide referendum. Autonomists seem to consider ignorance of English an inoculation against a pro-statehood sentiment; however their tactics greatly disadvantage the youth of Puerto Rico whose future opportunities will surely be cut off unless they have competency in English.

The report points out, ironically, that many of the anti-English ideologues in Puerto Rico send their own children to private schools where English is well taught and graduates leave the school fully bilingual. In effect, many separatist politicians deny to public school students what they desire for their sons and daughters, the chance to obtain entrance into mainland universities and the opportunity to land good jobs within the island’s workforce.

This week, Herald readers are asked to choose the factor they consider most important to better prepare Puerto Rican public school students in the effective use of the English language.

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:

What factor is most important to better prepare Puerto Rican public school students in the effective use of the English language?

 (Mainland Residents, please vote in the left column; PR Residents vote on the right)

US . Residents
. PR
Devote more class time to English

Hire or train better qualified teachers

Elect leaders who support bilingualism

Do nothing. Leave it alone.


Current Results


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