SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The governor of Puerto Rico is trying to do what more than a century of American citizenship has failed to accomplish: make Puerto Ricans fluent in English.
Gov. Luis Fortuno, who has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate, has proposed an ambitious, and what critics call far-fetched, plan to require all public schools to teach all courses in English instead of Spanish.
The U.S. territory has had a long and contentious relationship with the English language, and many Puerto Ricans are skeptical about embracing it, fearing they will lose a key part of their identity and find themselves a step closer to statehood, a status that only about half of islanders have backed in recent polls.
The governor wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st U.S. state. But he says his plan is about economic necessity, not politics.
Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labor market that is increasingly competitive and globalized, he said.
Only 12 of the island’s 1,472 schools offer an all-English curriculum of the sort envisioned by Fortuno, while 35 other schools offer some courses in English, such as math and physical education, Education Secretary Edwin Moreno said.
Moreno is overseeing an initial $15 million project to install a bilingual curriculum in 31 schools starting in August and to reinforce the English-Spanish curriculum already in place in the 35 other schools. Plans for adding the rest are still hazy, but the governor says he wants all public school students to be bilingual within 10 years.
Aida Diaz, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association, said that while she supports bilingual education, the notion of teaching all courses in English is extreme.
This is wrong, she said. This leads us to substitute our own language for a secondary one. It should not be that way.
All public schools are required to teach English from kindergarten through high school, and 9,000 teachers are devoted to that.
Former Education Secretary Gloria Baquero said the biggest problem in Puerto Rico is the lack of good English teachers.
Their accent as well as their command of the language is not the best, she said. They know the grammar, but the spoken language is not their strong point. So we have a lot of English teachers who end up speaking Spanish in class because the children don’t understand them.
English actually dominated Puerto Rican public education during the first half of the 20th century. From 1900 to 1948, all high school subjects were taught in English, until the island’s first democratically elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, ended the practice.
The learning of English was associated with a very real thrust by the U.S. government to Americanize Puerto Rico, said Carlos Chardon, an anthropologist and former education secretary. A great majority of persons associated English with statehood.
In 1991, Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon went further by declaring Spanish the island’s sole official language. The law was repealed a couple of years later by Gov. Pedro Rosello, whose first official act was to make both English and Spanish the official languages, a law that stands to this day.
Morales said he supports the idea of a bilingual curriculum but doubts it will become a reality unless teachers are properly trained, parents get involved and the education system improves.
The main problem here is that you have a community that does not have good command of Spanish, he said. If they are deficient in Spanish, how do you pretend they are going to become fluent in a second language?