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Puerto Rico, Statehood and Court Interpreters

The language question is one that has often arisen in the Puerto Rico statehood debate. Puerto Rico now has two official languages: English and Spanish. Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Puerto Rico. It is the second most commonly spoken language (after English) in the U.S. as a whole.

English is the official language of a number of states in the U.S., but it is not the official language of the United States. The United States does not have an official language. In spite of a couple of centuries of pressure to name an official language, the U.S. Congress has resisted this move, recognizing that our legacy of cultural diversity is an essential element of the richness of our shared American heritage and culture.

It is certainly true that most of the U.S. speaks English and that Spanish is the dominant language of Puerto Rico.  Would Puerto Rico be less able to succeed as a state because of this?

Puerto Rico would not be the only multilingual state. A recent New York Times article focuses on the costs and challenges of providing interpreters for courtrooms in New Mexico, where jurors as well as witnesses and defendants often need language support in Spanish or Navajo. 36% of New Mexico’s residents speak a language other than English at home — typically Spanish.

Even extreme proponents of English-first or English-only legislation agree that courtrooms must be an exception to rules requiring that all official business be conducted in English. U.S. English describes their Official English dream as having exceptions:

Official English legislation contains common-sense exceptions permitting the use of languages other than English for such things as public health and safety services, judicial proceedings, foreign language instruction and the promotion of tourism.

U.S. English’s plan therefore simply describes what is the case in most states right now: government services are offered primarily in English, with additional costs and challenges when common sense requires translation.

This does not prevent their worrying about what might happen if Puerto Rico became a state. Here is a frantic prediction from their website:

Should Puerto Rico become a state, legislative and legal proceedings there are currently conducted entirely in Spanish. Would Spanish be used for the official record in federal and state courts in Puerto Rico? What language will be spoken by employees of the federal and state governments in Puerto Rico? If Spanish is chosen, how will they communicate with the rest of the United States?

This worry seems out of step with a reality in which at least 37.6 million Americans speak Spanish. As the New York Times points out, Spanish  – and other languages – are already being used in federal and state courts in the fifty states. As to what would happen in legal proceedings in Puerto Rico “should Puerto Rico become a state,” we only need to look as far as the status quo, under which English is commonly used in  Puerto Rico’s federal court system and Spanish is the dominant language of its legislature.  Problems that would arise from the use of Spanish in Puerto Rico’s legal systems are not theoretical guesses.  The situation is being managed now – under Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.

Still, U.S. English’s suggestion is that Puerto Rico should not be considered for statehood unless it gives up its official bilingualism — even though Hawaii also has two official languages and many states have never declared an official language. And of course, the United States also has no official language.

The English PLUS movement has a different suggestion:

The English Plus movement is based on the belief that all U.S. residents should have the opportunity to become proficient in English PLUS one or more other languages. For nonnative speakers of English, this means the opportunity to acquire proficiency in English and to maintain proficiency in their native language(s). For native English speakers, this means the opportunity to become proficient in a language other than English while continuing to develop their English proficiency.

For Puerto Rico, where English is already an official language but Spanish is frequently used in the legal systems , the situation actually may be simpler than in states that have high percentages of non-English speakers and yet conduct court cases in English today.

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