PICKET: FDR pressed english on Puerto Ricans

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Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is taking lots of heat over his remarks regarding what language Puerto Ricans should be speaking. Politically the issue is a third rail that more than likely cost him a number of delegates from the island. Fox News reported on Thursday: 

Santorum toured the English- and Spanish-speaking island and attempted to clarify recent statements on the issue, saying English should be the official language but not the “only” one spoken in the United States.”English should be taught here, and everyone should speak English here,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said in Old San Juan. “It’s not the only language in California. It’s not the only language in Arizona.”

The Daily News beat up on Santorum when the Senator called Puerto Rico a “Spanish-speaking country” on ABC’s This Week, even though the Senator quickly corrected himself. Of course, many will attribute the initial “country” error to Santorum’s views on Puerto Rico’s language debate. 

Interestingly enough, for everyone who is kicking him around over this, it should be noted that previous presidents held similar views to the Pennsylvania Republican about Puerto Rico’s language instruction.

In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed, Jose M. Gallardo as Puerto Rico’s Commissioner of Instruction. In a letterto his new commissioner, FDR writes: 

My dear Dr. Gallardo:

I have decided to appoint you Commissioner of Education for Puerto Rico and have sent your name to the Senate.

I desire at this time to make clear the attitude of my Administration on the extremely important matter of teaching English in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico came under the American flag thirty-eight years ago. Nearly twenty years ago Congress extended American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. It is regrettable that today hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have little and often virtually no knowledge of the English language. Moreover, even among those who have had the opportunity to study English in the public schools, mastery of the language is far from satisfactory. It is an indispensable part of American policy that the coming generation of American citizens in Puerto Rico grow up with complete facility in the English tongue. It is the language of our nation. Only through the acquisition of this language will Puerto Rican Americans secure a better understanding of American ideals and principles. Moreover, it is only through thorough familiarity with our language that the Puerto Ricans will be able to take full advantage of the economic opportunities which became available to them when they were made American citizens.

Puerto Rico is a densely populated island. Many of its sons and daughters ‘will desire to seek economic opportunity on the mainland or perhaps in other countries of this hemisphere. They will be greatly handicapped if they have not mastered English. For it is obvious that they always will and should retain facility in the tongue of their inherited culture, Spanish. Clearly there is no desire or purpose to diminish the enjoyment of the usefulness of the rich Spanish cultural legacy of the people of Puerto Rico. What is necessary, however, is that the American citizens of Puerto Rico should profit from their unique geographical situation and the unique historical circumstance which has brought to them the blessings of American citizenship by becoming bi-lingual. But bi-lingualism will be achieved by the forthcoming generations of Puerto Ricans only if the teaching of English throughout the insular educational system is entered into at once with vigor, purposefulness and devotion, and with the understanding that English is the official language of our country.

Theodore Roosevelt was also a strong advocate in wanting Puerto Ricans to learn how to speak English. In 1902, four years following the Spanish American War, the Official Languages Act declared Spanish and English co-official languages of Puerto Rico. So Santorum’s ideas about the island are not exactly new and should not be treated as such.

Furthermore, the debate in Puerto Rico is not over whether or not Puerto Rican public school children should be learning English. It appears the 100 year old fight is over how English is being taught in the public school system. Private school students in Puerto Rico are more than likely to graduate with the best fluency in English, but that kind of education is only available for a small percentage of the U.S. commonwealth. More recently, there is a debate over what works better for Puerto rican students: English as a Native Language(ENL) v. English as a Second Language (ESL) v. English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

University of Puerto Rico’s Dr. Alicia Pousada has written on the issue for a number of years. In this paper on the current debate she writes:

But the situation is not so simple. For many Puerto Ricans, English continues to be a foreign language used only when there is no other option. Even though the aforementioned opportunities exist, few individuals take advantage of them. In the schools, English is usually not the favorite subject of most students, and many English teachers (despite their training and their best intentions to use English exclusively) end up giving their classes primarily in Spanish. Students then acquire the attitude that English is a “Mickey Mouse” class that requires no real effort and effectively cease to strive and expand their knowledge. Only those with highly motivated (and financially secure) parents who send their kids to private schools or special public school programs where English is actively promoted, end up feeling comfortable in the language.

As a result, many students enter the university with considerable gaps in their English knowledge. For them, English is definitely a foreign language. Nevertheless, it cannot be compared to other foreign languages like French, Italian, or Portuguese, since only a tiny minority of elementary or secondary schools teach these languages, they are not mandatory, and the few students who opt for studying them do so voluntarily, a fact which assures a more positive motivation (Lambert 1969, Norris-Holt 2001). They enjoy a certain “cachet” because they are associated with the arts rather than with business or technology. In addition, as Romance languages, their linguistic similarity to Spanish makes them easier for Puerto Rican students to learn.

Puerto Ricans are well aware that, as American citizens, becoming bilingual opens more doors to economic opportunities for them in the commonwealth and the 50 states, but the public school system problems as a whole on the island need to be sorted out first, and our own politicians cannot seem to agree on solutions for what is best for students living in the United States. 

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About the Author
Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket, a former Opinion Blogger/Editor of The Watercooler, was associate producer for the Media Research Center, a content producer for Robin Quivers of "The Howard Stern Show" on Sirius satellite radio and a production assistant and copy writer at MTV.

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