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Limited English Narrows Puerto Ricans’ Choices: English Class Is Not Enough In The Spanish Speaking Territory

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

April 25, 2004
Copyright ©2004
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

NARANJITO, Puerto Rico -- Twenty-seven years in the classroom, and Jesus Rivera still can build excitement around the difficult business of learning a second language.

"This is English, la, la, la," he sings as the fifth-graders clap along, clearly delighted.

And the class is off, sprinting through drills and games and songs, all in English. But as the students file out of his classroom at the Adolfo Garcia community school, Rivera acknowledges that his efforts will almost certainly fall short.

"Fifty minutes of English in a classroom is not enough for a student to learn a second language," he says. "When they go home, parents don't talk English, so they are not able to continue practicing. We need more time of teaching English as a second language in the public schools."

Politicians have long spoken of this Spanish-speaking U.S. territory as a potential bridge between Latin America and the United States. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans may travel freely to study, work and live on the mainland.

But a century of public-school instruction in the dominant language of the United States has not produced a bilingual population in this former colony of Spain.

Education officials and outside observers say the reasons include insufficient time spent learning English; a shortage of instructors in English as a second language; and a political environment in which attempts at reform get tangled in the divisive debate over the island's relationship with the United States.

Until those conditions change, analysts say, limited English will continue to mean limited opportunities, for individuals and for the island as a whole. And students who migrate to the mainland unprepared will struggle in schools where the only language of instruction is English.

On the most recent Puerto Rican Academic Progress Tests, taken last spring by 170,000 public-school students on this Caribbean island, only 50 percent demonstrated proficiency in grade-specific standards in English. By most estimates, no more than a quarter of the 3.8 million people who live here are fluent in the language -- and many of those learned it in private schools or in the United States.

"English is absolutely imperative; there's no question," says Miguel Soto Class, executive director of the Center for the New Economy, an independent think tank in San Juan. "It has nothing to do with politics or status or any of those things. We are in the same hemisphere as the strongest, most powerful country in the world, and they happen to speak English. Until Mexico becomes the strongest economy in the world, English is going to be it for everybody."


From her eighth-floor office in the Department of Education tower in San Juan, Pura Cotto Lopez surveys the island's student body and is hopeful. The veteran university professor and president of Puerto Rico Teachers of English as a Second Language took over in January as director of English instruction in the Department of Education.

"I think our students are actually speaking more English," she says. "Even though they tell you, `I don't speak English,' . . . if you start talking to them, you'll see that, yes, they can communicate in the language. . . . If we do get these qualified teachers, definitely, I have no doubt we can actually become a bilingual island."

About 600,000 students attend more than 1,500 public schools operated by the department. By law, each takes English for at least 50 minutes per day.

"Learning a second language, we can have that silent stage through the process, and that stage can last for many, many, many years, until actually when you can say, `You know what, I have the confidence, and I have the need to actually communicate,' " Cotto says. "I feel that that happens to many of our students on the island. That, yeah, they're in that silent stage -- until they find that need to actually speak. But they're absorbing everything."

The goal, Cotto says, is that students speak the language by the end of sixth grade and become fully bilingual by the time they finish high school. The principal challenge, she says, is finding enough qualified instructors to teach them.

The department employs about 12,000 English teachers; 1,000 of them are working on provisional licenses. Most are native Spanish speakers; not all are fluent in English.

University of Puerto Rico Professor Roame Torres Gonzalez, author of Language, Bilingualism and Nationality, says the quality of instruction in the public schools varies widely.

"Many teachers that are supposed to teach English in Puerto Rico, especially at the elementary schools, are not really prepared to teach English," says Torres, chairman of the Department of Education Fundamentals at UPR. "Really, one can say not only that they are not prepared, but that they don't speak English very well."

Cotto says the Department of Education is in the process of training and certifying more instructors.

"We need to understand that to teach a second language, you don't have to be a native speaker," Cotto says.


Raymond Cintron, a native of the Bronx, moved with his family to Naranjito as a child. Now he teaches English at the Escuela de la Comunidad Adolfo Garcia, using movies and pop songs to engage his middle-school-aged students.

"I want them to go a little bit further than being able to answer true or false," Cintron says. "I want them to go to analysis. But I'll be honest: Sometimes we don't get to that. I go over things that the students were supposed to learn in fifth or sixth grade, and we have to go back."

After class, a visitor attempts to ask three of Cintron's eighth-graders in English about their studies, their lives and their plans for the future. Beyond providing their names and ages, they seem not to comprehend the questions until they are repeated in Spanish.

By the end of high school, Cintron says, some of the students do learn to speak English.

"It's possible, because I've seen it," he says. "Students who have never gone to the States come out fluent. But out of 20, that's maybe two or three.

"The problem we have here is that since there isn't a necessity to use English, it's not sink or swim; it's not immersion; kids don't have to learn it. At this age, especially, they don't understand the importance," Cintron says.

Island businessman Jose Alsina, who has worked as a manager with International Data Products, Warner-Lambert, Atari and General Signal, calls learning English "the best thing that happened in my life."

"It's better than a doctorate," says Alsina, a public-school graduate who says he picked up the language in the Boy Scouts and the National Guard. "At this time in history, English and Spanish, related to high tech, business, international communications, if you know both languages, you are able to communicate very easily with half or more of the world."

Conversely, says Soto, of the Center for the New Economy, those who do not master English risk isolation.

"Even the few kids that manage to do really well in public schools and have a good education, you want to hire them, but you can't, or if you do, they're limited, because they're not bilingual," he says. "Puerto Rico's economy has been so linked to these multinationals, how can you work in any kind of senior management position in Pfizer or Amgen or Hewlett-Packard and not be bilingual?"


In his classroom at the Escuela Bilingue Certenejas II in the town of Cidra, second-grade teacher Jose Cruz puts on a cassette of the Beatles singing "Please Mr. Postman" and herds several students toward the front of the room.

The class is studying the solar system; Cruz, wearing a cape covered in stars, planets and moons, is leading them in a play.

Certenejas II is one of the few English-only public schools in Puerto Rico. Its 185 students come from towns throughout the region to study a full curriculum that includes math, science, social studies, art and music.

The school has overflowed out of the former community center in which it opened five years ago and into portable classrooms. Principal Carmen Hernandez shows a waiting list with dozens of names, and says she gets inquiries every day.

Seventh-grader Nilsa Rodriguez says she asked her parents to enroll her in the school so she could learn English.

"I saw that they had problems getting work," she says. "I was thinking of the future."


Certenejas II is a remnant of pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello's Bilingual Citizen project. The initiative to expand English instruction met resistance from Rossello's pro-commonwealth and independentista critics.

"It caused a furor," says Jorge Velez, who teaches English to business students at the University of Puerto Rico in Bayamon. "It was seen as Rossello and his people trying to bring more English in and pave the way for statehood. And it was probably a little bit of that, too."

Officials across the ideological spectrum say they support the development of English as a second language, but attempts by successive governments to improve public-school instruction have met political and practical obstacles on an island that values its Spanish roots.

English has been a sensitive subject in Puerto Rico since the U.S. Navy invaded in 1898. The first American governors set up English-only public education as a means of Americanizing the population. But they never found enough teachers capable of teaching in English, the policy seemed to increase dropout rates and inflamed nationalism.

"Probably English in Puerto Rico is not English as language," says Pablo Rivera Ortiz, undersecretary of education for academic affairs in the pro-commonwealth government of current Gov. Sila Calderon. "It's English as politics."

Under Calderon, the Department of Education has not pursued Rossello's Bilingual Citizen project. In its place, officials this academic year have designated 84 "special schools," in which students receive 90 minutes of English instruction.

They will be watching to see whether scores improve on the academic progress tests this spring -- and whether there is an impact on other subjects.

The population may not yet be bilingual, but English is subtly pervasive here -- on the labels of the products that line the supermarket shelves, in Spanglish words such as chatear (to chat) and surfear (to surf), and in the way young Puerto Ricans pepper their Spanish speech with such words as anyway and whatever.

Spreading that influence in recent years has been the permeation of cable and satellite television, which has brought American programming into hundreds of thousands of homes. Many here credit the phenomenon with improving language skills.

"I would say it's had an impact," says Velez, of the University of Puerto Rico. "I see a student who's really good, I'll ask them, and almost invariably they will say that they do watch cable TV. They watch a lot of it."

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