Rick Santorum, then a presidential candidate, stumbled when he said in 2012, “Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law. And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language, such as Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language.”

That’s not a law. In fact, the United States does not have an official national language, and never has had one. No territory has ever been required to have English as its principal language, in order to become a state or after statehood.

That conversation took place in 2012, before the three 21st century status votes in which the voters of Puerto Rico chose statehood as their preferred political status. Is the conversation about English as a principal language over?

The language question lingers

In 2020, ProEnglish wrote, “This new bill about a status convention for Puerto Rico, as well as prior bills regarding statehood for Puerto Rico, all fail to address the vital question about official English on the island.” To support their claim that this is a vital question, they quoted their own Board of Directors Chair Dr. Rosalie Porter : “any legislative attempt by the island to become the 51st state must stipulate that English become its primary official language of the government, courts, and school system.”

In fact, English is the language used in federal courts in Puerto Rico, and it is taught in Puerto Rico’s schools.

ProEnglish has used the same quote repeatedly, most recently in 2023, when the Puerto Rico Status Act was reintroduced in Congress. ProEnglish is working to make English the official national language of the United States, and they are therefore very much against statehood for Puerto Rico. There are other English-only organizations that take the same position. often they present Puerto Rico statehood as a threat to the English language.

Is English under threat?

More than 1.5 billion people speak English, worldwide. The English language is spoken by roughly 20% of all the people in the world. It is the most widely spoken language in the world. There are more people who speak English as a second language than the total number of native speakers: there are about 400 million native speakers, and 1.5 billion who use it as a second language. It is widely spoken in 96 countries. It is the language of business and of the internet.

English is in no danger.


As the chart shows, Spanish is also very widely spoken. It is currently the second most popular language in the United States, and Puerto Rico would not be state with the largest number of Spanish speakers. The enormous popularity of Spanish among residents of states has not created any threat for the English language, and adding Puerto Rico as a state clearly didldl not threaten the English language.

Is Spanish threatened?

Spanish is the second most popular language in the United States. The United States is also the nation with the second largest number of Spanish speakers, right after Mexico. There are 50 million speakers of Spanish in the United States, counting both native speakers and those who have learned Spanish as a second language.

Spanish-English bilingualism is very desirable in U.S. workplaces. Puerto Rico’s large bilingual workforce is a drawing card for U.S. companies considering building plants in Puerto Rico.

While some in the anti-statehood faction express concern that the Spanish language would be lost if Puerto Rico became a state, we actually see the Spanish language being lost among people of Puerto Rican heritage who move to the states in search of the benefits of statehood. We do not see Spanish withering away under the current colonial relationship.

Since these claims are often mixed with a false story of the Hawaiian language, we should take a moment to clarify the history of that language. In 1896, more than 60 years before Hawaii became a state, a law requiring schools to be taught in English was passed. In that same year, Hawaiian was declared the official language of Hawaii. Though Hawaiian was still taught in schools, by law, during the territorial period, Hawaiian became an endangered language. In the 1960s, less than a decade after statehood, the movement to revitalize the Hawaiian language gathered strength. The Hawaiian language was threatened by territorial status, not by statehood.

What about Quebec?

In addition to the Hawaiian language red herring, anti-statehood factions often bring up Quebec, where anti-English violence took place in the 20th century. Quebec has a separatist movement, as does Puerto Rico, but there the similarities end. The histories of Puerto Rico and Quebec, the laws regarding the language spoken in the two places, and the attitudes toward English are quite different.


Is Puerto Rico Like Quebec?

Language and status

As a territory, Puerto Rico is under the plenary control of Congress. Congress can make rules about language for a territory, and has done so in the past. States, however, have control over their language laws under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. As a state, Puerto Rico will have control over language. As an independent nation, Puerto Rico could declare an official national language, as the United States has never done. The language issue is just another red herring.



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