ENGLISH FIRST IS an organization dedicated to making English the official language. Spanish First is a group striving to preserve the Spanish language. These two movements do not contradict each other. That is because English First targets the United States, and Spanish First has set its sights on Puerto Rico.

It all makes great sense, doesn’t it? Speak English in San Francisco and hable espanol in San Juan. Both English First and Spanish First are battling against government programs that impose bilingual education on public school children. Both are right.

Spanish First formed in response to the Puerto Rican Department of Education’s controversial program to make English a second language of instruction in public schools. English is already widely taught in Puerto Rico and key to success in business. But asking instructors to teach mathematics, history and other academic subjects in the English language is something new.

Gov. Pedro J. Rossello’s plan to increase fluency in English is clearly intended to improve Puerto Rico’s chances of becoming the 51st state. Congress must soon decide whether to offer Puerto Ricans the opportunity to vote for such status. Given the ongoing U.S. debate over bilingualism, there is much concern in Washington over adding a non-English-speaking state.

However, Puerto Ricans should be equally wary about joining an overwhelmingly English-speaking country. Although English is by far the most important second language on the island, the great majority of Puerto Ricans – three quarters of them – do not speak it.

Setting aside politics, many Puerto Ricans see bilingual education as an attack on their culture. “Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking country, and to introduce in a massive way instruction in English is to try to Americanize us,” said Carmelo Delgado, who now heads Spanish First.

There are also practical reasons for opposing bilingual education. Puerto Rican schools must already cope with scarce funds for the sciences, mathematics and literature. And test scores indicate a declining proficiency in Spanish. Bilingual education is expensive, and many of the island’s teachers do not enjoy full command of English.

Similar arguments are heard in the American debate over bilingual education, although the goals differ. Bilingual education in the United States is intended to help immigrant children keep up with academic subjects in their native languages while they learn English. In practice, though, it has produced dismal results.

Immigrant children of European or Asian background are more likely to be placed in “English-proficient” classes, while Latino children get labeled “native-Spanish-speaking.” Separated into an educational ghetto, many of these children leave school speaking neither good English nor good Spanish.

Educators often force youngsters who already understand English better than Spanish into bilingual programs. Latino parents who want their children to speak English immediately must hire lawyers to be heard. The stakes are high. In California alone, the bilingual industry spends $ 500 million a year.

Actually, Californians will have an opportunity next spring to overhaul the state’s bilingual program and replace it with intensive English instruction. The proposal recognizes that young children take easily to new languages. The initiative, called English for the Children, would give parents the option of keeping their children in bilingual programs if they ask for a waiver.

Although bilingual education has forceful supporters among ethnic activists and part of the teaching establishment, it is a much unloved program. Some 83 percent of the Latino respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll said they opposed it.

The flaw of bilingual education is not that it threatens the primacy of English, but that it slows the progress of immigrant children. English is the language of economic power and stands in no danger. Other countries can’t keep it out; witness the desperate campaign in France to bar use of English.

Americans considering Puerto Rican statehood must ask whether they can accept the ramifications of a non-English-speaking state. But Puerto Ricans face the bigger dilemma. Do they want to become a linguistic minority? And those concerned with cultural preservation must recognize that in competitions between English and other languages, English has a tendency to win out.

Froma Harrop is a Journal-Bulletin editorial writer and columnist. She may be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]@projo.com.

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