Bilingual is Better

Puerto Rico announced yesterday that it aims to make all its public school students bilingual by the year 2022. To that end, Gov. Luis Fortuño has proposed a plan to require all public schools to teach all courses in English instead of Spanish — except for Spanish grammar and literature, of course. On the surface, this might seem like a good plan, after all, we all know the power of bilingualism. But once you look at it for what it really is — a political move by a governor who wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the Union — it’s very difficult for me to stand behind this proposal.

Before I continue, let me disclose (for those of you who don’t already know) that I’m married to a Puerto Rican whose entire family still lives there. I’ve visited Puerto Rico countless times since I met my husband back in 1997, as well as a journalist covering all types of stories for Univision. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with people with completely different views regarding what should happen with their island, from those who want to become the 51st state to those who want to become independent. And so, although I’m not Puerto Rican, my views have been tainted by the time I’ve spent there, the people I’ve met and, more than anything, my husband’s family.

As a huge proponent of bilingual education — particularly of dual language immersion programs — I found myself between a rock and a hard place after I found out yesterday that Puerto Rico announced to the world that it wants to become fully bilingual within 10 years. On the one hand, I obviously believe wholeheartedly that bilingual is better. Here at SpanglishBaby, we’ve spent the last three years exalting the benefits of speaking more than one language and, as most of you know, we just got done writing a book all about this topic. And yet, I can’t support bilingual education when it’s done for political motives, at the expense of another culture and in a forceful manner. It has to be an option, not an imposition. Many Puerto Ricans, including my husband, feel the same way.

In fact, although she supports bilingual education, even the president of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association feels that teaching all courses in English is extreme. “This is wrong,” Aida Diaz told The Associated Press. “This leads us to substitute our own language for a secondary one. It should not be that way.”

The politics behind Fortuño’s proposal are as complicated as the contentious history between the U.S. and it’s one and only colony, Puerto Rico. Suffice it to say that, for many Puerto Ricans, the idea of imposing a mostly all-English curriculum in public schools puts them one step closer to statehood. While about half the islanders support this, many others want to remain a U.S. Commonwealth. A very small minority, wants independence.

Here’s the thing: Both English and Spanish are the official languages of Puerto Rico, but about 96 percent of the island’s 3.9 million people speak Spanish at home. In others words, Spanish is, undeniably, the majority language. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Puerto Rico. While a lot of people over there — including my husband’s family — understand, speak and even read and write in English, they conduct themselves in Spanish all day long and in every aspect of their lives. To all of a sudden switch to teaching all courses in English instead of Spanish and to make it mandatory is, in no uncertain terms, an imposition. And becoming bilingual because you’re forced to, is no good — regardless of the benefits. 

Interestingly enough, even many of those who are in favor of statehood and are themselves bilingual feel this way. For them, it’s like they want to become the 51st state, but not at the expense of what it means to be Puerto Rican and one of those things is their native language, which is tied to their traditions, heritage and most of all, their music. And that’s the one thing any Latino who reads SpanglishBaby should be able to identify with. After all, isn’t that exactly what we’re all trying to do?

In the end, I guess you have to be Puerto Rican (or married to one) to truly understand the intricacies of their past and see why imposing English in public schools is such a sensitive issue.

{Image via Joe Shlabotnik}

How do you feel about a government imposing bilingualism on all children?

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