As Puerto Rico contemplates statehood, language continues to be an issue of concern for groups and individuals who would like to see the United States adopt English as the official national language.
The United States does not have an official language, though many states do. Groups that would like to see the U.S. adopt English as an official language may be concerned that another bilingual state (Hawaii, like Puerto Rico, has two official languages)would make their cause even more difficult to accomplish.
In discussing the November 2012 plebescite, US English (“Making English the Official Language”) says, “this vote is dangerous to the cause of Official English.” The group goes on to say, “The acceptance of an entire U.S. state where public schools, courts, and the legislature operate in a non-English language would drive a spike through the unifying power of English, our common language.”
The article containing these forthright admissions that Puerto Rico’s statehood would threaten their cause continues with expressions of alarm over the possibility that Spanish might be spoken on official occasions. “What language will be spoken by employees of the federal and state governments in Puerto Rico?” the authors ask. “If Spanish is chosen, how will they communicate with the rest of the United States?”
These rhetorical questions are quickly followed by reminders that Puerto Rico has a high level of poverty and would have representation in the U.S. government if it were a state. It is not clear that this is connected with potential problems in communication.
U.S. English Chairman Mauro E. Mujica visited Puerto Rico last year. He congratulated Puerto Ricans on having “the best of both worlds” as a territory of the United States and went on to state the position of the organization:
Rather than arguing about the future of Puerto Rico’s political status, political leaders should instead be working together to help solve the island’s economic problems. U.S. English believes that the future political status of Puerto Rico should be chosen by the will of its residents– however, if statehood is elected, we would like to see it done with the support of a supermajority (not simple majority) of voters, and English should first be declared the sole official language
In other words, Puerto Rico should declare English its official language (as the United States has never done) and then should vote on the question of political status. In English, we assume.
In a white paper, the organization goes into more detail on its view of statehood for Puerto Rico:
The momentum behind statehood is significant and the likelihood of the Puerto Rican people voting to become a state becomes more and more imminent. Becoming a state, however, will have a major affect [sic] on the cultural independence Puerto Rico now enjoys. The most important characteristic of statehood that must be taken into consideration is the fact that statehood is a permanent change. If conditions change, and Puerto Ricans dislike what is happening to the island, culture, and/or language as a result of statehood, Puerto Rico cannot secede to become independent, or even return to commonwealth status. Going back is not an option.
The paper points out that some other states which were not at the time of their admissions into the Union primarily English speaking (Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona) were told before their votes on statehood that they would be expected to learn English.
English is already one of the official languages of Puerto Rico.
ProEnglish, another organization seeking to make English the official language of the United States, has a page on Puerto Rican statehood in its website’s main navigation. They have not updated the page since last year’s referendum, but they opposed the 2012 vote because ” there is no provision in the bill that requires Puerto Rico to adopt English as the language of its government, which ProEnglish believes must be a pre-requisite for any territory or commonwealth to be admitted as a state.” There is no such provision in the current bill, either, so we can assume that they still oppose statehood for Puerto Rico.
ProEnglish believes that admitting Puerto Rico to the Union would set a “bad precedent.” “No territory with an official language other than English,” they say, “has ever been admitted to the Union.” Overlooking the fact that Hawaii has two official languages and that — by the US English count — four other states with “language issues” have in fact been admitted, it again seems odd that an organization believing so strongly in the value of making English an official language should be so completely willing to ignore the fact that English is one of Puerto Rico’s official languages.
If these organizations are so convinced that making English official would advance the unity of the United States, why do they consider it irrelevant that Puerto Rico has declared English an official language?
ProEnglish concludes the discussion with a clear statement of their position:
Puerto Ricans have fought bravely defending freedom as members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and made great contributions as citizens residing in the U.S. But the U.S. has a duty to preserve English as the unifying language of our nation. Puerto Rico should not be admitted to the Union unless it agrees to make English the official language of day-to-day government operations, and English language instruction mandatory in its public schools.
English First contents itself with quoting Rick Santorum:
“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” Santorum said. “And that is that English has to be the principal language.”
Santorum was incorrect in his belief that there is a federal law regarding the primacy of English.
Is the fact that Spanish is spoken by most people in Puerto Rico truly a barrier to statehood? 34.5 million Americans speak Spanish at home. In all, 303 different language are spoken by residents of the United States. Spanish is already the most common second language in the U.S. — for 62% of those who reported speaking a language other than English at home, Spanish was the language in question.
There are currently more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland that in Puerto Rico. Including Puerto Rico as a state would not, based on the numbers reported by the most recent U.S. Census study, make much difference in the prevelance of Spanish being spoken in the United States.