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Official status for English is a bad idea

by Eric Jackson

I edit The Panama News, Panama’s English-language newspaper since 1994, which appears regularly on the Internet and from time to time in special print editions. I think that it’s fair to say that I have done more to promote the learning of the English language in Panama than has any member of the Legislative Assembly. It’s also fair to say that I have a special economic interest in the more widespread learning and use of English in this country.

Yet, both as one who uses English as my native tongue and as Panamanian citizen number 3-721-1318, I must strongly disagree with the proposed legislation to make English Panama’s official second language. This proposal would not truly promote the learning of second and third languages by the Panamanian people. It would, however, bring back failed coercive policies from the old Canal Zone, policies that caused deep resentments that harmed Panama’s English-speaking peoples.

I remember the posters found at so many Canal Zone workplaces: "Advance in your job and prosper by speaking English." I also remember how quickly most of them were defaced with the English-language slogan "Yankee go home." Now, after generations of struggles, after people sacrificed their lives to make this country master of its own house, the Panama Canal runs very well in Spanish.

Of course the canal needs people who speak English. Also, people who speak French, Mandarin, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek and many other tongues. Is Panama to live up to its potential as "The Crossroads of the World?" Then we must encourage the learning of many foreign languages, not just English.

While we are discussing the theme of Panamanians learning second and third languages, we should also not ignore our own indigenous languages. It really should be this country’s public policy to preserve the languages and cultures of our original nations, by offering Kuna, Embera, Ngobe and other non-Spanish Panamanian languages to students in our public schools.

Legislator Arauz proposes to make English an official language, but his proposal contains not one nickel to pay for improvements in the teaching of that or any other non-Spanish language in the public schools. It offers no money to help our English teachers and certified interpreters and translators improve their skills.

What’s more, the proposal doesn’t even recognize what is needed to make people who speak English imperfectly become more fluent. Classroom learning is fine, but at a certain point it’s a good idea for people to live in an English-speaking country for at least several months. Panama’s biggest English-speaking community traces its ancestry through the West Indies, but our foreign policy is to deny that we are a Caribbean country. That hurts the cause of English instruction in Panama, because the United States is not going to issue visas to 100,000 or more Panamanians who want to visit for a few months every year to improve their English, while the various English-speaking Caribbean nations are likely to be much more welcoming. We can’t elevate the status of English in Panama without improving our relations with the entire English-speaking world, which the proposal before the legislature does not seek to do.

What the Arauz proposal would do, however, is not in the Panamanian people’s interest.

It would enable unscrupulous businesses to force people who do not understand English to sign English-language form contracts with unfavorable terms, and then enforce those provisions as if the signers had agreed to them.

It would serve as an excuse for the mass firings of public employees, no doubt to be replaced with the least worthy of those privileged Panamanian youth who have been educated in English.

It would put many of our interpreters and translators out of work.

It would take away the incentives for those Panamanian citizens whose first language is English from improving our Spanish, as most of us ought to do.

The current proposal should be rejected, and Panama should instead begin a more intelligent debate about improving its entire educational system, including instruction in languages.


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