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Puerto Rico opts for English-medium learning

In an ambitious move, Puerto Rico is to introduce English-medium teaching at all of its public schools over the next 10 years. However some have attacked the move unrealistic and politically motivated.

"Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine"

From August 31, children aged 5-9 at 31 schools will begin learning all subjects in English apart from Spanish and history. At a further 35 schools they will be taught some subjects in English, depending on their teachers’ fluency. The scheme will be rolled out to all 860 of the Island’s public schools over the next decade.

“Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labour market that is increasingly competitive and globalised,” said Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno last month of the plan, flagging opportunities in the US. Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the US since 1898, and islanders are legally entitled to live and work in America.

While welcomed in some quarters, others say frailties in the country’s education system will stymie the plan. Only 30% of Puerto Rico’s 3.9 million residents speak English at a high level, while the 2010 US Census indicates that Spanish is the native tongue for 96%. In addition, just 12 of the island’s 1,472 schools offer an all-English curriculum.

“Much of our school population is in special education because they have trouble learning in their maternal language,” Aida Díaz, president of the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico, said on a radio programme June 8. “Imagine [learning] mathematics and science in English!”

“We have a lot of English teachers who end up speaking Spanish in class”

Others say the country lacks enough qualified English teachers, and Fortuno has offered little detail on how teachers will be trained.

“They know the grammar, but the spoken language is not their strong point. So we have a lot of English teachers who end up speaking Spanish in class because the children don’t understand them,” said former education secretary, Gloria Baquero, who nonetheless supports the policy.

The negative reception of the policy from some speaks to the cultural and economic conflicts that follow English medium education. While most teachers’ unions in Puerto Rico support English (and languages such as Mandarin) taught as a second language, they fear fully anglicised learning (which was the norm between 1900 and 1948 when it was ended by the island’s first democratically elected governor) could damage the island’s culture.

“Many people associate any attempt to improve their English with political motives”

Puerto Rico will also vote on whether to become a full US state, remain unincorporated or seek independence in a referendum this November, with Fortuno’s New Progressive Party pushing for the first option. Some see his courting of English as a sop to the US, although Fortuno has denied this.

Baquero warned that political resistance would be another obstacle for the plan despite its economic benefits. “Many people resent the imposition of language and associate any attempt to improve their English with political motives,” she said.

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