A Bilingual Nation

By Gerald Solomon
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"
http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc0604/article_574.shtml



If Puerto Rico chooses to become our 51st state, its language would have to be English. Over the past two centuries, we have forged a nation out of our different peoples by emphasizing our common beliefs, our common ideals and, perhaps most important, our common lan-guage. Our English language has permitted this country to live up to our national motto, e pluribus unum (out of many, one). For most of our nation's history, the English language has been the key to integrating new Ameri-cans as well as the glue that has held our people together. It is in this spirit that we have both worked diligently to preserve English's central place in our society by making it America's official language.

This issue has taken on added importance recently. Congress has begun considering legis-lation putting in place a process for the people of Puerto Rico to vote on their political status. Puerto Ricans would decide whether to retain the com-monwealth relationship that has existed for more than 40 years or to end that association and petition either for statehood or independence. This legislation, known as the U.S.- Puerto Rico Political Status Act, sets out the guidelines under which the Puerto Rican people would vote to determine their island's political future.

It is not Congress's place to favor one option over another in this process. The Puerto Rican people alone should decide the political status of their island. But Congress does have a constitutional responsibility to define clearly what each status option would entail. It is in this regard that the language issue has been raised. Juan M. Garcia-Passalacqua argues in his June 7 op-ed column that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, its language would have to be Spanish. We disagree. While it is abundantly clear that Puerto Rico's Hispanic culture, history and heritage are integral parts of what it means to be a Puerto Rican, we believe that, like the 50 states that preceded it into the Union, a state of Puerto Rico would have to be prepared to make certain accommodations to become an equal partner in the United States. One of these conditions would involve adopt-ing the English language. If Puerto Rico chooses to become our 51st state, its language would have to be English.

"If a nation that is so similar to our own [Canada] can come so

close to unraveling, can we afford to take our own national unity

for granted any longer?" English would become the language of business and com-munications in federal courts and federal agencies. It would also become the language used by the state government and its agencies, as well as the courts and the public school system.

Promoting the use of English in the state of Puerto Rico would allow us to preserve our unity as a nation and prevent possible divisions along linguistic or cultural lines. In a world marked by a renewal of nationalism, tribalism and separatism, our country must do everything it can to promote the ties that bind us together.

While making English the language of Puerto Rico protects America's unity, it serves practical purposes as well. For the people of Puerto Rico, fluency in English is necessary for them to become full partners in American society.

Puerto Rico must be an English-speaking state to ensure that the United States' govern-ment is able to perform its duties in an equitable manner across the country. Whether one is in San Juan or San Francisco, a citizen of the United States must have access to the same resources, must be protected by the same rights and must be held to the same level of civic responsibility.

Both of our congressional districts are close to the border the United States shares with Canada, where French-speaking Quebec has edged ever closer to separation from the commonwealth. That country's near breakup this past year over linguistic and cultural differences left us with a profound impression of the fragility of nations. Much like the United States, Canada is a young, diverse country founded on many of the same democratic principles. If a nation that is so similar to our own can come so close to unraveling, can we afford to take our own national unity for granted any longer?

This Congress has recognized the need to protect our nation from the forces that threaten, to use Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s phrase, "the dis-uniting of America." Speaker Newt Gingrich has indicated that hearings on legislation making English the official language of the United States will be held this fall. We are confident that Congress will move swiftly to reinforce the common linguistic bond that keeps our nation of immigrants together. English soon will be our official language. □

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