Understanding Puerto Rico: Classroom Discussion Questions – Language

PUERTO RICO REPORT offers discussion questions on the political status of Puerto Rico, a topic that confuses many people. Now, in our second collection of classroom discssion topics, we offer questions, answers, and resources on another complex issue: the language of Puerto Rico.

  • Q: What is the official language of Puerto Rico?

A: Puerto Rico has two official languages: Spanish and English.

  • Q: As a territory of the United States, is Puerto Rico required to have English as its official language?

A: No.  Although the Federal government cannot require a State to have a particular official language, it can require a territory to have a particular official language.  It does not, however, require Puerto Rico to have English as an official language.  The elected representatives of the people of Puerto Rico made English an official language of the territory.  The United States has no official language, though the question has arisen in Congress many times over the centuries, beginning in 1780.  A number of States have made English their sole official language, but Hawaii has two official languages (Hawaiian and English) and several States, such as Alaska and California, provide services in languages other than English to citizens and residents who primarily speak a language other than English.

  • Q: Do most Puerto Ricans speak English, or Spanish?

A: Most Puerto Ricans usually speak Spanish, although English is taught in the schools, is used in the Federal courts, and is often used in business.

  • Q: If Puerto Rico became a State, would it be a problem that many of the people there speak Spanish?

A: Puerto Rico is treated like a State for the purposes of most laws and has been a territory since 1898, and the predominant use of Spanish has not been a problem.  One of the reasons for this is that Puerto Rico, like Hawaii and Alaska, is separated from the 48 contiguous States.  One and a half million people who live in the States are from Puerto Rico and more than 4.9 million citizens of States are of Puerto Rican origin.  Puerto Ricans primarily speak English in the States, although in certain areas they often speak Spanish, as in other communities in the States where languages other than English have long been predominantly spoken. Currently, about 20% of Americans speak another language besides English at home. Spanish is the most common second language — 34.5 million Americans speak Spanish. Spanish speakers comprise 25% of the population of some States.   Bilingualism is the norm in the world — the average adult worldwide speaks 1.58 languages, and is considered a sign of education in most countries.

  • Q: Would Puerto Ricans have to learn English if the territory became a State?

A: English First and English Only have proposed that the Government of Puerto Rico be required to use English exclusively if Puerto Rico becomes a State.  The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly defeated proposals in this regard twice, once under Republican leadership and once under Democratic leadership.  In both cases, the House called for increased English education in Puerto Rico instead. Some 82% of citizens of the States of Puerto Rican origin are proficient in English, compared with just 35% of Latinos in the States. As there are more people of Puerto Rican origin in the States than in Puerto Rico, it is clear that learning English is not an insurmountable problem for Puerto Ricans.

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