Importing Quebec

Rick Santorum to Puerto Ricans:

“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law, and that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language.”

Some people are gleefully pointing out that actually there is no federal law regarding English, which is correct. A Reuters article suggests that Santorum’s position is at odds with the Constitution, which is not correct*. Others are suggesting that this is a racist attempt at getting the votes of people who are all hopped up on illegal immigration.

Very little discussion has been had, so far, regarding the meat of his argument. And, once I overlook that it’s Rick Santorum and get over his incorrectness regarding English and the federal law, I think he’s more right than not. We should not grant statehood to a territory where English is not the primary language. It doesn’t matter if, as Doug Mataconis says, “many Puerto Ricans, especially those that travel between the island and the mainland already do speak English or at least functionally literate enough in it to be able to communicate.” A majority, however, do not. This isn’t about travel to and from the mainland, but rather countrymen’s ability to communicate with one another.

I am personally not all that concerned with the number of Spanish-speaking immigrants we’ve had coming to this country over the last decade or two. My lack of concern, however, is due in good part to a confidence that they will indeed learn it. There is little reason to believe that Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico will. They’ve been teaching English as a second language for some time now, and it hasn’t taken. They already have free movement throughout the United States, but given the distance it’s not a successful enticement (I’d perhaps be more amenable to Baja California, if it were a territory, but only if shifting to English were a priority).

Without the ability to communicate freely, there is a lack of foundation to be considered a single country. Canada has the Quebec problem, and they deal with it, but there are reasons that they have that simply don’t apply to Puerto Rico and the US.

Even without the language barrier, I’m not sure how well-served we are having another far-flung state. But the language barrier presents a legitimate issue that separates it from places like Guyana.

* – Congress has a wide range of requirements it can put upon a state. They may not be able to require that everyone speak English all the time, but they can say “no statehood until you’ve made strides or demonstrate a roadmap to English primacy.” In fact, they came within just a few votes of doing just that when they authorized the referendum.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Are you sure a majority of Puerto Rican’s don’t speak English at least as a solid second language? My sis in law is from PR and her first language in English although she is fluent and natural with Spanish. All her family speaks both well. Granted that is one data point but my belief was that residents of PR all speak English.

    Its not unreasonable to raise language as an issue regarding whether an area should become a state. But there are many places already where people are bi-lingual but fine Americans although smaller areas: Native American reservations, Chinatown’s across the country, southern Louisiana and NOLA ( that is only partly a joke).

    • According to the Census of 2000 (I couldn’t find 2010 numbers), 72% of Puerto Ricans speak English “less than very well.” The closest state is California, at 20%. (I don’t have a link, unfortunately, but I do have the Census document downloaded and I can send it to you if you would like.)

  2. So i choose to press submit to the above post before checking the font of all knowledge and Encyclopedia Britannica slayer, Wikipedia. W says Spanish is the primary language but English is taught from elementary school up through college. Apparently most don’t speak English as a first language. They noted a couple of studies that found people in PR don’t speak English at an advanced level. Insert your own joke about whether primary English speakers in the rest of the US can actually speak it at an advanced level. I do wonder what that means at a practical level however.

    • Yeah, I knew that they’ve been trying to teach it, which in one sense is good, but in another sense disheartening. Given the geographic isolation, it really makes me concerned.

      I forgot to mention in my previous comment, but they’re generally populated with early-generation immigrants (many of whom’s children will go to college and move on to the wider world). Third-generation English attainment rates tend to be really good.

      Reservations are something of a different matter, though even there, there is concern that the old tongues are dying. And they are often as isolated as Americans can be. Not remotely as isolated as Puerto Ricans, though…

      (On a sidenote, what will we call Puerto Ricans if they did become a state? To differentiate between the ethnicity and people who move there? That could get confusing.)

      (Just to be clear, I am not positing that such confusion is an argument against statehood.)

      • FWIW my sis in law very much felt she had to get off the island or else she would stagnate. The sense i got was people who stayed would just do the same old thing they always had without any options. Sort of like needing to move out of small rural town to go to the big city. She left to get a MA. I know part of her extended family were new immigrants to PR from Columbia and most of her family live in on the mainland.

      • “but they’re generally populated with early-generation immigrants”

        Do you mean that people now in Puerto Rico are immigrants from elsewhere?

  3. I’m just unclear as to why you feel puerto ricans should speak english in order to achieve statehood.

    Language is one of those “If you build it, they will come.” Things. If the people of puerto rico actually need to learn english for the level of civic participation necessary for statehood, they will.

    • I don’t believe that Puerto Ricans, on an individual level, will need to learn English in large numbers. I believe that is why they haven’t thus far, even though it would be to their benefit (just like it would be to the benefit of Americans to be bilingual, but we remain mostly unilingual). And as a quasi-independent commonwealth, that’s fine. I’m not simply saying “They should speak English!” Rather, I’m saying “To achieve statehood, their government and their people should be geared towards speaking the same language that the President, and congress, and the vast majority of the country speaks.”

      (I believe the fact that they speak Spanish could actually be a great asset. If English/Spanish bilingualism was the norm, that would be *golden*. And I would overlook the non-contiguous thing.)

  4. I’m curious about what you mean by your reference to Quebec. When you say, “Canada has the Quebec problem, and they deal with it, but there are reasons that they have that simply don’t apply to Puerto Rico and the US,” do you mean that allowing Puerto Rico into the union might give the US a problem similar to Canada’s with Quebec?

    If so, I think that analogy doesn’t quite work. Quebec for a long time was the most populous province and is still one of the most populous. Its principal city Montreal used to be the leading city of Canada, although it has lost ground. The Dominion government has had to make compromises that the US government probably wouldn’t have to make.

    On a slightly different point, I see the prospect of Puerto Rico statehood in part as a consequence of colonizing it (or taking it from another colonizer in a war more than 110+ years ago). If “Commonwealth” status doesn’t work for the residents, and if a majority wants statehood–and neither of these facts are well-established, I admit–then the US shouldn’t be too picky about the terms as long as Puerto Rico offers something that can be called a republican government. In that vein, I don’t think English should be a requirement.

    Whether it’s to the US’s advantage to have more extra-contiguous states: I suspect it’s probably not. But McKinley and T. Roosevelt should’ve thought of that when they took Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, etc.. The fact that they’re not states probably means the US can wash its hands of them if the going gets rough, and it provides a less momentous way for the inhabitants to gain independence without having to appeal to something that will sound like secession.

    Well, I’ve written enough. I guess what I mean is, the issue is complicated (although you didn’t claim it was simple), and that it seems wrong to me to predicate Puerto Rico’s admission on what language its residents speak.

    • Errr….just to be clear, I realize the Philippines is an independent country. Part of my point is that it was much easier for it to be become independent because it was not a state. Also, I realize that US policy in the Philippines, from the beginning, was nominally in favor of independence. That’s a different issue from the other acquisitions from the Spanish American War.

    • I actually mention Quebec because when I have, in the past, said that Puerto Rico’s language is a problem, I’ve been pointed to Canada, where they have made it work. So I took the Quebec analogy and ran with it. I agree that there are major differences. The differences run in both directions, though: The contortions required of Quebec are greater, but so is the necessity. If I were being mean, I’d point to Belgium! But seriously, we have no idea what it would look like and how it will work.

      “The price we pay for our colonialism” is actually a compelling argument, though not compelling enough. They have a pretty good deal now. And I have no problem with the deal they have now.

      I should add that if an overwhelming number of Puerto Ricans wanted statehood, I might actually change my mind. But we keep trying to rig the process just to get 50%+1 to vote for it. If statehood wins, it will likely be by a very small margin (smaller than the margin it was rejected with last time around). Because they happen to be split slightly in favor of statehood makes me wary.

  5. Puerto Rican Spanish is not terribly understandable to most spanish speakers. The vocabulary is too different, let alone the pronunciation! (puerto ricans can understand spanish from other places, though…).

    The internet and video games are our best tools to make people learn english.

    • If true, that actually strengthens the argument for English whether they want statehood or not. It puts one at a disadvantage to speak in a way that no foreigner can understand.

      Pop culture may be our greatest tool, but education and immersion are not unimportant. The question is… what can Puerto Rico do?

    • Puerto Rican Spanish is pretty much the same as the Spanish in the rest of the Caribbean (i.e. Cuba). The way they drop their “s”‘s gives it an almost southern-like drawl.

  6. I have basically nothing of value to contribute to this, but it made me think a lot of things, and I just wanted you to know that.

    • Thanks (assuming that it’s more than a lot of variations of “Christ, what an asshole…”)

    • You know, I’d read this, but I hadn’t put a couple of things together. If as recently as twenty years ago, they were Spanish-Only, then the English instruction in schools is a more recent development than I internally conceptualize. If we can look at, say, people below 30, and get an idea of what percentage of them speak English well, the situation may not be nearly as problematic as I fear.

      • The only reason I’m familiar with it is that my college roommate was from San Juan, and we all went down to PR during one spring break around the time it was being debated. He could speak both English (and Spanish) perfectly fluently and his friends had varying levels of English proficiency, from perfectly fluently to bare bones. And that was in a mostly upper-middle class peer group; my impression that English proficiency was more haphazard as one descended (for lack of better word) economic classes. (and even then, another anecdata, I had a Navy officer colleague from PR who was smart and educated enough but his English proficiency – or lack therof – pretty much kicked him off his ship as JG because he likely couldn’t finish his warfare qualification)

        • I think your impression is correct. Though in addition to economic class, I would say it is probably also dependent on proximity to a major city or center of economic activity. There is, I would guess, a good deal of overlap between the two though.

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