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Review of  Being Bilingual in Borinquen

Reviewer: Hannah M King
Book Title: Being Bilingual in Borinquen
Book Author: Alicia Pousada
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 28.4789

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“Being Bilingual in Borinquen,” edited by Alicia Pousada, is a collection of 25 linguistic autobiographies written by graduate students at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. The book seeks to highlight the experiences of these Puerto Rican students as they have developed their high level linguistic competences in multiple languages and cultures. Furthermore, the volume endeavors to identify variables and characteristics within the narratives that have contributed to the participants’ highly developed English and Spanish skills, to aid future language planning and policy. Aimed at teachers and language professionals, the book is structured into five chapters. The first chapter provides a basic introduction to the topic of bilingualism as it relates to the linguistic situation on the island. The second through fourth chapters showcase a collection of narratives grouped by shared bilingual experiences: those born in Puerto Rico, Nuyoricans and early childhood bilinguals, and immigrants to the island, respectively. Finally, Chapter 5 poses the question, “What’s It All Mean?”

In Chapter 1, “Who’s Bilingual and Why?”, the author provides a brief introduction to the language situation in Puerto Rico (otherwise known as Borinquen). A lack of mastery of the English language is noted even though being bilingual is, in theory, viewed as advantageous; a reality that may relate to resistance towards imposed language rules and regulations. Pousada next highlights some basic concepts in bilingualism research starting with a look at various definitions of the term itself. She settles on the idea that bilingualism is “dynamic and ever-changing,” particularly within the students’ narratives. A summary of different types of bilingualism follows, connecting the categories with examples of how Puerto Ricans may fall into these various definitions. It is noted that due to the requirement of studying English as a subject in school, most Puerto Ricans are “sequential, late childhood bilinguals” (p. 7); however there is a range of bilingual ‘types’ represented in the autobiographies. Pousada gives an introductory nod to successful language learning, citing Spolsky’s (1989) model as a way to highlight the connections between social context, attitudes, and personal characteristics. She links the ‘social context’ of the model with language policy and class in Puerto Rico, cites jobs, travel, and English-media as sources of ‘motivation,’ and notes that ‘personal characteristics’ are extremely varied within the provided narratives.

Chapter 1 next touches on growing up and living as a multilingual, mentioning that multilingual societies are common and often less focused on the goal of speaking like a ‘native,’ while speakers in Puerto Rico and other societies with a history of imposed language use can be reluctant to learn a language or have negative attitudes towards a way of speaking. Societal versus individual bilingualism is discussed to make the important distinction between bilingual individuals as speakers that can utilize multiple language varieties and situations of societal bilingualism in which the government or education system may require or protect a language or languages. Pousada goes on to discuss languages in contact in Puerto Rico, providing an abbreviated discussion on borrowing of English words into the local Spanish, code-switching as a part of Puerto Rican bilingual identity, and dynamic translanguaging within the linguistic repertoires of these students.

The second chapter, “Made in Puerto Rico,” highlights the autobiographies of 10 students who have lived the majority of their lives in Puerto Rico, were educated in Spanish-medium schools, and spoke Spanish at home as children. Interestingly, although only half of the authors consider themselves to be Spanish-dominant, they all spoke of the prominence of English media and entertainment throughout their lives–whether that be TV shows, films, books, or music. Pousada allows the stories to speak for themselves in Chapters 2-4, withholding commentary until the final chapter.

Chapter 3, entitled “Nuyoricans and Other Early Childhood Bilinguals,” tells the stories of 12 individuals who were either born in the USA (5 out of 10) or had at least one English-speaking (therefore bilingual) parent. The majority of these students travelled back and forth between the USA and Puerto Rico (and sometimes additional countries) during their childhood and/or adolescence. These bilinguals, like those from the previous chapter, frequently brought up the prevalence of English media in their lives, and a number of them had knowledge of a third, fourth, or even fifth language.

In the fourth chapter, “Immigrants to the Enchanted Island,” we discover the histories of just three individuals, all three born in the USA, who moved to Puerto Rico as adults. Two of these English-dominant students had monolingual parents, learned Spanish in school, and traveled in Spanish-speaking countries.

In Chapter 5, entitled “What’s It All Mean?”, Pousada discusses the fact that although the linguistic situation in Puerto Rico has been studied by educators, linguists, and social scientists, the key voices missing are those of the people who have directly experienced bi- or multilingualism on the island. The analysis begins with a list of the commonalities between the narratives, including factors such as supportive adults, opportunities for language acquisition, awareness of the benefits of bilingualism, non-judgmental attitudes, personal relationships that gave a purpose to language learning, flexibility and openness, and the inclination to take social risks. The speakers also tend to agree that being bilingual is advantageous. The main distinguishing features of the stories are then identified as types and lengths of schooling, family structure, and differences in community.

Pousada then turns to the topic of language policy in Puerto Rico and gives an introduction and brief history of the language policies of the island, noting that these policies rarely take into consideration the needs of speakers and their diversity, but rather serve political agendas. Although Spanish operates at the ‘de facto’ language of Puerto Rico, there have been numerous language policies put into place over the years, from co-official status for Spanish and English, to Spanish as the official language and back again. Connecting the stories with language planning possibilities, Pousada claims that the characteristics shared across narratives that helped the students become ‘successful’ are required throughout the island, arguing that an “ideal” language policy would understand the benefits of bilingualism and provide opportunities for acquisition of language varieties and cultural knowledge. She posits that this will require opportunities for language and cultural acquisition, openness, and relationships that make language learning worthwhile. Furthermore, these goals will require parental and community involvement to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom. This section also touches on the idea that the distinguishing qualities of the autobiographies can help to pinpoint areas of need on the island.

The work indicates that there is an opposing pull from globalization on one hand and nationalism on the other in Puerto Rico, which has an effect on language attitudes. Pousada suggests adopting the mindset of the Scandinavian model of “parallel language use” which is accepting of language alternation. However, she notes that this type of model in Puerto Rico would require significant research, including consideration of rural areas vs. urban settings. The work provides a “rough sketch of the possibilities for a more nuanced language policy in Puerto Rico” (p. 154) and concludes that Puerto Rico is a complex linguistic landscape that would benefit from a language policy which considers the nuances of multilingual abilities and experiences.


“Being Bilingual in Borinquen” achieves its overall goal of providing insight into what it is like to be multilingual, specifically within the context of Puerto Rico. The essays explore multilingualism from the perspective of understudied speakers who have personally experienced the various languages and cultures of Puerto Rico. Well written and user friendly, the collection may be of interest to teachers, language policy makers, school administrators, linguists, and students. The book briefly covers a wide range of important concepts in bilingualism research, gives an important introduction to the linguistic situation in Puerto Rico, and raises relevant concerns about language policy on the island. Pousada succeeds in identifying variables relevant to further language planning and policy on the island; however, the majority of the volume focuses on the stories themselves, so there is limited depth to the analytical discussion.

One of the strengths of the book is that it puts the individual voices of the speakers front and center and lets their observations and experiences speak for themselves. By amplifying these individuals’ experiences, this publication addresses a push in the field to seek data and input from community members themselves (e.g. Li Wei, 2014) and a surge in research taking an ‘emic’ perspective in the social sciences (e.g. Holliday, 1999; Todeva & Cenoz, 2009; Canagarajah & Wurr, 2011). A further benefit for readers who are not familiar with Puerto Rico’s language dynamics is the introduction to the topic of language on the island and the policies and planning behind the use of Spanish and English. By including this content alongside personal narratives, the book urges readers to consider both the insider’s perspective on linguistic experiences and the implications of top-down and ever-changing governmental policies.

The main weakness of the text is that the analyses of the narratives remain superficial throughout the work. For example, Pousada provides two lists in the final chapter–one of factors that were present in all of the autobiographies and one of the differences observed–but doesn’t take the analysis much beyond the descriptive, leaving the reader to wonder about the significance of these similarities and differences. A further example is that there are a variety of briefly mentioned ‘themes’ identified in the autobiographies (e.g. the role of the media and interactions with peers), however the thematic analysis is again quite descriptive and these observations remain largely unconnected to the research literature. The text offers minimal solutions to problems within the field of multilingualism, with one notable exception: citing conflicting language attitudes towards bilingualism as a major problem in Puerto Rico, Pousada offers up an interesting and intriguing solution, the Scandinavian model of “parallel language use” (p. 152) in which there is nuanced alternation between languages. Unfortunately, this idea is not thoroughly explored in light of the autobiographies within the collection.

Weaknesses aside, the book raises potentially interesting research questions, such as the observation, “[i]t is remarkable how many times the authors [of the autobiographies] mentioned a key English teacher who turned them around or a job that made developing their language skills relevant and feasible” (p. 146). This question could be extremely relevant for language teaching and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research.

The longest section of the final chapter is reserved for a conversation about language policy in Puerto Rico. Here the author writes, “[l]anguage policies should ideally emerge from the expressed needs of the speakers; however, in reality they often reflect the political agendas of the authorities in charge” (p. 148). This is another intriguing point and is followed up by the claim that, “an ideal language policy would help individuals understand the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism and transmit this knowledge to their children” (p. 151). Pousada then gives some general requirements for improvement of language policy: an understanding of the benefits of bilingualism, a transmission of this knowledge, opportunities for language and cultural learning, an open-minded attitude, the cultivation of both personal and professional relationships which give meaning to language learning, and involvement of both parents and the surrounding communities. Although these elements made relevant by the writers of the autobiographies should be discussed in terms of the development of future language policy, the work could benefit from a practical discussion of steps needed to cultivate these objectives.

Overall, the collection of essays is well suited as a pedagogical tool in an introductory linguistics or bilingualism/multilingualism class. It provides the much needed insider’s perspective for teachers and policy makers whose understanding of bilingualism, of lack thereof, shapes pedagogy. “Being Bilingual in Borinquen” has the potential to increase general and academic awareness of multilingual policies and practices in specific educational, political, and social contexts, which could benefit societies worldwide. Pousada raises interesting questions regarding personal circumstances and language attitudes in terms of both language proficiency and language policy and highlights the complexities underlying the conceptualization of multilingualism.


Canagarajah, A. Suresh & Adrian J. Wurr. 2011. Multilingual communication and language acquisition: New research directions. The Reading Matrix. 11(1).

Holliday, Adrian. 1999. Small cultures. Applied Linguistics 20. 237–64.

Li, Wei. 2014. Researching multilingualism and superdiversity: Grassroots actions and
responsibilities. Multilingua 33(5–6). 475–484.

Spolsky, Bernard. 1989. Conditions for second language learning: Introduction to a general theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Todeva, Elka, & Jasone Cenoz. 2009. Multilingualism: Emic and etic perspectives. The Multiple Realities of Multilingualism. Personal Narratives and Researchers’ Perspectives. 1-32.
Hannah M. King is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London interested in the intersection of language, culture, and communication. Her research interests include multilingualism, code-switching and translanguaging practices, language contact settings, and cross-cultural communication. She is currently investigating the communicative practices of a community of Spanish speaking immigrants in London.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443889940
Pages: 195
Prices: U.K. £ 58.99
U.S. $ 99.95