The Language Question continues to come up in discussions of Puerto Rico’s political status. Protests agains the Puerto Rico Status Act, which gives voters in Puerto Rico a choice among all legally viable non-territorial options for political status, include those who claim that the bill is flawed because it doesn’t mention language.
Here’s the truth: the bill doesn’t need to mention language because the 10th amendment makes it clear that states make their own decisions about language. The 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that anything not covered by the Constitution is up to the individual states. The Constitution does not mention language; the United States has no official language.
We can therefore predict exactly what would happened to Puerto Rico’s language use under the possible status options:
- As an independent nation, Puerto Rico would be able to make its own decisions about language.
- As a state, Puerto Rico would be able to make its own decisions about language.
- As a territory, Congress gets to make all decisions about Puerto Rico, including language.
Congress has not made any rules about Puerto Rico’s language use lately, but they could, legally, at any time so long as Puerto Rico is a territory. If Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation, Congress would have no say in the languages spoken in the new Republic of Puerto Rico. As for statehood, consider the example of Colorado.
Colorado’s linguistic history
From 1589 to the 1820s, Colorado was part of a Spanish colony. During that time, Spanish was spoken there, along with Arapaho, Apache, Comanche, Pueblo, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and other indigenous languages.
In the 19th century, German and Chinese speakers were the largest groups of non-English speakers in Colorado, and those are still the most widely-spoken languages in Colorado after English and Spanish. The state constitution was written in English, German, and Spanish, so that most of the people could read it. Senator Casimiro Barela was the representative who suggested the trilingual document when the constitutional convention discussed how to distribute the document to the people of Colorado. He was known as the “Father of the Colorado Senate” and held his Senate seat for 30 years after statehood. Throughout that time, the state constitution continued to be printed in English, Spanish, and German.
The intention was to make sure that everyone could have access to the laws of their new state.
In 1988, Colorado passed an amendment to their constitution making English the official language of the state. Now, about 15% of the state’s residents speak a different language at home. In addition to Spanish, German, and Chinese, there are also speakers of French, Korean, and Vietnamese.
The state also has a law requiring bilingual ballots when there is a large enough population needing them. 20 counties in Colorado printed Spanish language ballots in 2022. Two counties needed to provide Ute services; since Ute is not a written language, they relied on translators.
Whose business is the language question in Colorado?
Federal law requires bilingual ballots in six counties in Colorado. The state’s own state laws require the additional bilingual support. Colorado has also had some controversy over bilingual education, which is required by federal laws calling for equal opportunities for all children. Colorado voters were offered an option to change to another form of language instruction, but voted to keep bilingual education.
Decisions about language are up to the voters in each state. The federal government does not, and cannot, require states to have any particular official language, or even to have an official language at all. Federal laws can, as in the cases of bilingual ballots, require states to provide equal rights for their citizens in matters of language as well as other matters. But decisions about official languages, languages taught in schools, or the languages in which the state constitution is printed — those language questions are always up to the states.