05/31/2012 07:49 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Latin America And The English Language

After the official announcement of Puerto Rico's plans to become bilingual by 2022 a question arises: Will Puerto Rico reach the goal without losing its cultural identity?

The idea of an eventual alienation from their culture seems to be one of the reasons Puerto Ricans are reluctant to learn English, and it is a fact that Latin Americans in general are protective of their culture. This is evidenced, among other things, by the efforts of Latino immigrant parents in the United States to maintain their own traditions for their children, who are constantly exposed to the American culture.

More importantly, Latino parents know that language is a key to cultural identity and losing it would reduce the chances to preserve their native culture. But language also opens possibilities to enrich their own culture and to spread it to others as well. And this is what the goal should be.
Learning English as a second language is similar to receiving a key to a second culture. This second key comes with a number of benefits; first, and perhaps most important, we have the chance to communicate with people from other cultures. We can use this ability to interact to spread our own culture and educate others. I wouldn't be writing this post sharing my perspective as a Latin American if it weren't for that possibility.

But the benefits are not limited to a matter of input and output. A second benefit, that in some cases is ignored, is the opportunity to broaden our minds and thinking. A language is not just a given number of words and a set of grammar rules. New mental structures also come with other languages. We have to learn different ways of thinking, and this is something that improves us as human beings.

With such benefits, being able to communicate in English seems a great asset for all Latin Americans and, for that matter, any person from any region. But what about the how? Can an entire country with a unique cultural background become bilingual in a given period of time? And how can Puerto Rico reach the goal? In my case, my country of origin, Colombia, has also set the goal of becoming bilingual. We have been implementing the "Colombia Bilingüe" plan since 2004, and the goal is to be a bilingual country in 2019. The plan started with the discussion and selection of a reference framework for languages and its application in all levels of education. By establishing levels for students and providing guidelines for teachers at schools according to certain competence indicators, the program improves English language education in Colombia and prepares the country for success in the highly competitive global market.

But even at an individual level, learning English has never been easier than now. With more and more content being produced by people who used to be passive content consumers, and with the immediate availability of such content anywhere in the world, finding material to learn is simple. If you feel that textbooks are boring, why not learn another language using material on topics you are really interested in?

In my personal experience, I began browsing the Web just five years ago and before that, was not aware of all the possibilities of the Internet for learning. I improved my language skills as a side effect of discovering things I didn't know I was looking for using StumbleUpon, a social discovery network based on a community that curates the content on the Web. Things that are not common in my native culture or that may be taken for granted in other places appeared before my eyes and fascinated me. I came across sites about photography, design, travel, even research papers on linguistics and other fields, all of which enriched me culturally and professionally and made me eager to share my findings as a teaching. If we translate this into formal language instruction, it's similar to thousands of hours of reading, hundreds of pages of writing and months of listening, through the articles, forums and videos available online.

In conclusion, Latin Americans can learn English without losing their own culture; what is more, multiculturalism will enrich our lives at an individual level and at a collective level; our cultural identity will be represented throughout the world, and we will understand other cultures as well.