February 16, 2009

Word of the Week: El Difícil, and Puerto Rico does not speak English

Sometimes it seems near impossible to find people who won't speak to you in English on the island: one tiny whiff of gringo-ness and you may find yourself having to explain in your native tongue* that no, you don't know their second cousin living in the state adjacent to yours. But the truth is that plenty of people of don't speak English well on the island. I was particularly interested in this article which claims that an entire 137 potential jury members couldn't serve in the jury for the famous Aníbal case (still ongoing, of course) because their English wasn't at an appropriate level.

They make some interesting points in the article, mostly because they start drifting into politics in a way they normally avoid. Honestly it reads more like something I'd write than something produced by El Nuevo Día based on the positions they take, surprisingly.

La mayoría de los que saben inglés en el país pertenecen a la clase media y alta, mientras que la inmensa mayoría del país es de la clase pobre, subrayó el antropólogo Jorge Duany.

“La distribución de las destrezas lingüísticas en inglés está mal distribuida, la mayoría de las personas que lo hablan vienen de escuelas privadas, donde se enseña inglés como único idioma. Esto crea un discrimen por razón de clase, porque sólo la clase media y alta pueden pagar por el colegio donde enseñan en inglés”, expresó Duany.

Las razones que explican el escaso dominio del inglés en la Isla incluyen las deficiencias en la enseñanza pública; la poca migración de estadounidenses hacia la Isla, distinto de Texas y Hawai, donde el inglés no es la lengua original; y que en la vida cotidiana en Puerto Rico no hace falta inglés, dijo Duany. Además, en Puerto Rico ha habido una resistencia lingüística, porque en la primera mitad del siglo XX se trató de imponer el inglés como idioma de enseñanza.

“El español se ha visto como un símbolo de la identidad puertorriqueña”, dijo Duany.

The majority of those who speak English in Puerto Rico belong to the upper and middle classes, while the country is mostly comprised of the lower class, emphasized the anthropologist Jorge Duany.

"The distribution of linguistic skills isn't even; the majority of people who speak [English] come from private schools, where English is taught as the only language [as in all the classes are taught in English]. This creates class discrimination, because only upper and middle classes can pay for schools that teach in English," Duany expressed.

The reasons for scarcity of the command of English on the island include deficiencies in public education; the lack of American migration to the island, unlike Texas and Hawaii, where English is also not the original language; and that English isn't necessary for daily life in Puerto Rico, said Duany. Additionally, there has been a linguistic resistance in Puerto Rico because in the first half of the 20th century the U.S. attempted to impose English as the language of all education on the island.

"Spanish has been seen as a symbol of Puerto Rican identity," said Duany.

Along with this point the scholar Jorge Duany makes (shoddily translated by yours truly--although to be fair some of the writing wasn't too great), I'd like to point out something in the title--"el difícil".

El difícil (literally "the difficult one") is a Puerto Rican term coined to describe English. I think the term is very telling, especially in this context: while no other countries have similar nicknames for English (as far as I know; fill me in if you know anything), Puerto Rico, due to its uneasy and persistent relationship with English, has nicknamed it in a way that reflects its position as an obstacle, rather than a method of ascension (professionally, socially, politically, or otherwise)--while it can be used that way, more often than not it isn't.

Anyways... I'm not really sure where I'm going with this and it's getting a little longer than I'd like, so I'll cut it off here. Comments, criticisms, and the like are, as always, welcome.

* This occasionally happens to Puerto Ricans as well if they happen to seem like gringos for whatever reason, despite having lived their whole lives on the island. So don't take it too hard if it happens to you.


Minerva said...

Yes, I agree that the nickname el dificil is telling. And no, I do not wholly agree with the specialist's conclusion of who in PR speaks English and ho does not.
From my own observations of Puerto Ricans for over a year now, I would say there are two groups that speak English: the well educated (yes, they seem largely to be upper and middle class, but that's what education buys you: a social ascent) and the ENTREPRENEURIAL. And many of them are working class, ambitious, striving working class. Denied better education at home they went to the USA, made some money, learned some English, learned skills that make them employable here, despite high unemployment and thus, competition.
The ones who nickname English "el dificil" are the passive ones, the ones looking for excuses NOT TO improve their lot, not to try to dig themselves out from poverty. Puerto Rico - as statistics claim - is a happy country. And a country with a very low level of entrepreneurship , very low tolerance of risk ... and ridiculously overstaffed, increadibly inefficient government - in true Spanish tradition. Yes the sins of Spaniard still seem to define Puertorican identity.
Among the Puertoricans I work with some of the drivers, handymen, waiters etc. speak English. They've been born poor, went to the mainland when young ... and then succumbed to the wished of their Puertorican families and sweathearts: they came back home, with skills good enough to hold a lousy paying jobs.
One ladder up: the teachers, secretaries, small time administrators: they do not speak English. They received their education here, enough to make a very modest living here.
Then they are all the educated, and relatively well paid Puertoricans: college professors, professionals, business executives: they do speak English: most of them got at least part of thei education in the USA. They are fully bilingual, fully conversant in the two languages and two philosophies of life on this island.

Anonymous said...

The official language of Puerto Rico should be Spanish and not English. It's a shame that instead of finding judges that spoke Spanish, they had to find jurors that spoke English.

With that said, well, I am from Puerto Rico, most people I know do speak English and those who don't, mostly don't because they do not want to. I have friends who are very well off and do not speak it...and yes, they are college educated and considered "rich" by PR standards...as well as very poor people who also don't speak it...So, I'm not sure it has anything to do with education and/or socioeconomic background. It has to do with choice.

My 85 yr old grandmother, who only finished 3rd grade went to Disney last year with us and we were thrilled to see how much english she actually knew...and spoke to anyone who listened...

Anonymous said...

After reading this article i am confused. Are you against people speaking English in Puerto Rico?
I just came back from 2 months in Puerto Rico and it was wonderful when someone spoke to me in English as I could understand and they could understand me. It was thrilling to be up on the mountains and here little children speaking in English. Yes, Spanish is the native language but English should be also inforced. This way when Puerto Ricans travel everywhere they can communicate.
For instance told to us by my brother-in-law. A guy leaves Puerto Rico to go visit his sister Aurora in Chicago.Upon arrival at airport ( his sister had not been able to pick him up)he asked a taxi driver vengo a ver a Aurora. So they taxidriver takes him to Aurora a town 50 miles away. When they get there taxi driver says address please, man says casa de Aurora. Long story short they were able to find someone that translated where the man was able to call his siter and find her sddreess, cost $150.00. Expensive carfare. Well, if he had learned English when he got here he would have been able to save himself $130.00 because the trip was a $20.00 fare.
My sister is an English teacher and teaches 1,2,3 grades. She does not let them speak spanish in her class. Spanish is spoken at home with family and friends. Imagine the glee on that tourist that comes to your store and you are able to help her because you speak English. If Tourists want to learn Spanish that's great they'ii answer in Spanish to learn. But don't say Americans that live in Puerto Rico should not speak English. I only speak English at home and outside. But if I go to family or friends houses and they speak to me in Spanish then I will speak Spanish.
Chicago has many many Puerto Ricans that don't speak English even living here for decades. How can you give yourself that handicapp?

Anonymous said...

The posting by Anonymous here is absurd. Who says to a cab driver "vengo a ver a Aurora," expecting him to know who or where that is? Had he known English, Anonymous's Puerto Rican would have told the cabbie "I'm going to see Aurora" and he would have driven him to the exact same place.

Additionally, Spanish is not the "native language" of the island as Anonymous purports. Why should any language be "inforced" [sic] on a people?

Boriquita said...

I was craccking up on the inforced part...

My poor family knows English because they went back and forth from the US to the island...or are we middle lower class...don't care...I'm proud to be fully bilingual, and I am comfortable with anyone's choice...

The thing that troubled me was when they may Spanish the official language of Puerto Rico by vote, un plebicito, and the following year Rosello added English...that's not democratic, that was imposing the English language on us...

Rosello tried to pull a fast one with the no. 5, and no. 3 several years ago...It was funny because almost no one admitted to voting for no. 3...I'm talking about the vote for statehood that Rosello had about a decade ago...

Zacarías said...

Este artículo me dio muchas ideas para la enseñanza, entonces decidí crear una unidad didáctica basada en algunas de las ideas encontradas aquí. Si te interesa, voy a empezar a publicar las actividades la semana que viene. Te cito como fuente en una de las actividades también.

naomi204 said...

It's true. I was an exchange student in PR and people wouldn't even give me the chance! It was total discrimination, just because I looked gringa, they spoke to me in English, even though the entire reason I went to PR was to learn Spanish. I wouldn't recommend anyone go there if there goal is to learn spanish.
Then I dyed my hair from blonde to brown and the discrimination decreased drastically. very interesting.

Joeanna's Music said...

This is very simple. If you don't think you need English to communicate in a global society, that's your problem. When you have politicians like Fas Alzamora telling which language should be teached in public schools, we're in deep trouble. If you critize the City of Guaynabo because the street signs are in English, you're missing the point. How come you go to the mainland and learn the language? Or do you expect that people in other countries "have" to learn your language because you said so? Don't be so naïve in thinking that puertorricans don't need English. That's one of the puertorrican attitudes that keep puertorrican society in the lower tier of knowledge. As long as people are in their "confort zone" they will not care about English or anithing else for that matter. But, then again, any change of the "status quo" will be perceived as goverment intervention and thus it requieres a "movimiento de pueblo". Who is "el pueblo"? Certainly "el pueblo" doesn't represent me. I don't feel as part of a "pueblo" that discriminates over more educated people because thay did not have, or worse yet, did not choose to learn a second language for the sake of laziness or that's just simply "cosas de riquitillos". No wonder as a society we're not going anywhere. Politicians included. This will get worse, not better as our society keeps rotting away.

Anonymous said...

bueno yo soy boricua de ponce.y el idioma de puerto rico es espanol...


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