A few weeks ago, I was enjoying Latin music in New York City’s Bryant Park with three bilingual Hispanic friends. We each have a different level of Spanish and English fluency. Claudia is foreign born and less fluent in English. I was born here but grew up abroad, and I’m equally fluent in English and Spanish. Juanita and Rudy were born and raised in the U.S., and one is a bit more fluent in Spanish than the other but both command a good amount of vocabulary to express their thoughts.
Juanita was telling us a story in Spanish, so Claudia asked her to switch to English for Rudy’s sake. Then something interesting happened―Juanita stuttered even though she speaks better English than Spanish. My guess is that she was thinking in Spanish and was not expecting to have to switch to English mid-story.
I have been asked if I think in Spanish or English. I honestly don’t know. If I have just spoken to a family member or read something in Spanish, my brain stays thinking in Spanish. Since I conduct most of my professional life in English and learned to fully express my emotions in English, when working or in conflict I think in English. A few times I have blurted out words in Spanish at someone who I was speaking to in English and does not know Spanish. Perhaps my brain was unconsciously operating in Spanish then?
Paula, a therapist who has studied the bilingual processing of emotions, told me that bilinguals experience enhanced results when getting treatment in the language their parents spoke at home. That is because the childhood language accesses a different part of their psyche than the second language which they employ mostly for education/work purposes.
With regards to how the bilingual Hispanic brain works, I observed another interesting thing; I kept getting Verizon direct mail and I thought it was in English. When I looked closely at the messaging so I could write a previous post for the AMA Executive Circle, I realized there were words in Spanish in all the pieces that I had received. I was stunned. I never saw them before.
A fellow consultant showed me her www.bodasyweddings.com website and asked me to tell her what language it was in. I initially saw only one language, then realized it was in Spanglish. Looks like my brain reads and comprehends text in both languages at the same time!
Deciding what language to speak to someone who you suspect is Hispanic is also fascinating. I usually keep speaking to the person in the language that was first used when I met them. So even if they speak Spanish, I only speak to them in English if I met them in English. Unless they switch the language on me. But other people handle this issue differently: Claudia, who is Spanish dominant, simply starts speaking Spanish to the person. Rudy, who is English dominant, asks “¿habla español?” and switches to Spanish if the person says yes.
A couple of weekends ago I spent time with my cousin’s 9-year-old daughter. She speaks and understands Spanish very well, usually talking to her mom in Spanish. But, she would speak to me in English, and since I like to reply in the language of the speaker, I would engage with her in English. But I speak Spanish with my cousin, so if I initiate conversation with her daughter I will do so in Spanish. And she will respond to me in Spanish.
I have worked with Hispanics across the spectrum and know that I’m bilingual Hispanic because I’m equally comfortable carrying on business in either language. Some people I have worked with prefer Spanish while others prefer English, generally depending on whether they attended high school or college in the U.S. or Latin America.
However, I’ve seen exceptions to that rule. I recently launched a bilingual Hispanic job search boot camp, and I’ve had listeners who were new to the U.S. that preferred to attend the English webinar. And there were listeners who had executive positions in the U.S. but would rather hear the content in Spanish. Others switched from one language to the next based on convenience―if they couldn’t make the English class, they would sign up for the Spanish one.
Talking about convenience, some Hispanics like to mix both languages in one sentence, which used to drive me crazy early on in my career. I strive to mostly speak in one languages at a time. Except when there are words that best convey my meaning in the other language, or I can only remember how to say it in that other language in the moment, even if it’s everyday words.
Bilingual Hispanic Marketing Implications
Leveraging the Spanish language for marketing purposes goes beyond doing it to ensure that Hispanics comprehend your brand message. Consider these aspects when deciding how to integrate Spanish in your campaigns:
- Some categories may live in the Spanish part of the brain (music, food, entertainment?) and some may live in the English part (banking, education?) as in Juanita’s story.
- Spanish can deliver a stronger emotional connection, as achieved in Paula’s therapy delivered in the childhood language.
- Spanglish advertising and websites may be a solution to delivering Hispanic relevance in one creative version, as was my case with Verizon and the wedding website.
- Allow Hispanics to choose whether to engage with your brand in Spanish or in English, asking them about their preference like my friend Rudy.
What approaches have you used to incorporate the Spanish language in your campaigns? Comment below.
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