Speaking English in Puerto Rico

El Nuevo Dia, the most popular newspaper in Puerto Rico, has published results of a new survey exploring the use of the English language in Puerto Rico.

According to the report, half of the people surveyed say that they use English regularly, whether it’s as their first or second language.  60% of respondents do not speak English or don’t feel that they speak it well. Just over 5% say they use English at home.

Interestingly, the better respondents say they speak English, the more likely they are to be employed.

Members of “English Only” groups are bothered by the idea that a territory where a minority of the people speak English fluently should become a state.

Has this happened in other states?

Yes. Many territories did not use English as their main language when they became states. Sometimes this came up in discussions in Congress, and sometimes it did not. The United States does not have an official language.

Here are a few examples of territories which spoke other languages when they became states:

  • Hawaii has two official languages; Alaska has 21. Hawaiian was not widely spoken in Hawaii in 1959, when it became a state. English had become much more common in the late 1800s. In 1978, Hawaii declared the Hawaiian language their second official language, and there has been a strong movement since then to reintroduce the Hawaiian language. Like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska also name English as an official language. Language was not an issue when these most recent territories were working toward statehood.
  • New Mexico became a state in 1912. In 1892, a discussion in Congress brought up the fact that English was less popular in New Mexico than Spanish. Legal documents were bilingual in New Mexico at that time, and a report on statehood for New Mexico presented to the House said that the people of the New Mexico Territory were working on English as a second language for their children. In 1902, when the subject came up again, a Midwestern senator presented a list of Hispanic surnames from New Mexico to prove that New Mexico was too foreign to become a state. In 1910, according to Language Rights and the Law in the United States: Finding Our Voices by Sandra Del Valle, English was spoken by half the residents of New Mexico. Two years later, New Mexico was a state. The 1912 Constitution was bilingual, and laws continued to be written in both Spanish and English until 1949. Spanish continues to be spoken widely alongside English in New Mexico.
  • When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, having been made up of the Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory, more than 50 languages were spoken there. According to General statutes of Oklahoma, 1908, English was required for prescriptions (which could also be written in Latin), real estate documents, courtrooms, and schools. Translations from English into other languages were also required in a number of circumstances, including safety documents for mines if there were 10 or more miners who spoke another language.
  • Louisiana became a state a century before New Mexico. The majority of the residents of Louisiana spoke French, and both French and English were used in courts and schools until well after the end of the Civil War. By 1921, when Louisiana had been a state for more than 100 years, public schools were generally taught in English. While there were many discussions about language in Louisiana’s legislature, the language difference didn’t prevent Louisiana from becoming a state.
  • Pennsylvania became a state in 1787, when it was the second state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. About half the people spoke German at that time, and Congress had printed laws in German for their convenience. There was no controversy on the subject. Pennsylvania was never a territory; it was a colony and it was also called a province.

Can Puerto Rico become a state before becoming fully bilingual?

Sure. Many other territories have become states when many of their residents spoke other languages. So did some of the original colonies. The United States has no official language. About 20% of people in the United States are bilingual, mostly in Spanish.

About 56% of Europeans are bilingual. Bilingualism is widely considered a benefit. It is a requirement or an asset for many jobs, and Puerto Rico’s strength as a business destination will benefit from the large number of bilingual people on the Island.

We cannot allow the small proportion of Americans who see language as a problem to delay statehood for Puerto Rico. Our history as a nation stands against this. Sign the petition for statehood now.

3 Comments

Jean

So…basically… there were no US territories where the majority of residents were non-English speakers when they achieved statehood? Not only that…there were no US territories that achieved statehood that were not incorporated?

Reply
pr51st

Louisiana and New Mexico are examples of territories that did not have majority English speakers. California is an example of a state which was not an incorporated territory before statehood.

Reply

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