¿Español o inglés? Understanding U.S. Hispanic Language Preferences

Spanish has held families and cultures together for centuries and serves as a source of cultural fulfillment for U.S. Hispanics; however, many marketers, and their clients, are asking: “Is Spanish likely to remain the language of preference among U.S. Hispanics? Or will English become more important as consumers acculturate?”

The answer to these questions becomes apparent when you dig a little deeper and fully understand the consumer segment you wish to attract.

Understanding the relationship between language, culture and human experience is a powerful tool for marketers. When targeting U.S. Hispanics, one of the biggest challenges is to recognize the diversity within the group. As with any population, Hispanics can be divided into various segments. Acculturation levels, language preferences and 22 different countries of origin make for unique sub-groups within the segment, as do socioeconomic indicators.

There are clear differences in behavior, attitudes and language preferences among these groups, and recognizing these differences is key to developing a cohesive Hispanic strategy from concept to messaging to media placement. It is unrealistic to expect a single language strategy to work successfully for the entire Hispanic consumer market.

In Consideration of Spanish…

According to Roberto Suro, Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, “the preference for Spanish-language media is highest among recent arrivals…the future of Spanish media depends on the number of Hispanics allowed to emigrate here.” As a result of immigration, the number of Spanish-speaking Latinos is greater than those who are currently bilingual and English-dominant in the adult Latino population. However, José Cancela, Principal of Hispanic USA, argues that regardless of immigration status or level of acculturation, “…Spanish connects on an emotional and visceral level with Hispanics in a way that English does not.”

The research in this area is not definitive, especially because issues of language and acculturation are complex and difficult to measure.

Whichever side of the argument you find yourself, it is important to consider media viewing habits of Hispanics in the U.S. Currently, Spanish remains the preferred language for obtaining news information, in part because Hispanics see Spanish-language media as presenting a more balanced perspective on events and issues that are of interest to this population.

In Consideration of English…

Presuming that you must speak to Hispanics in Spanish can backfire since this can be seen as a patronizing assumption and a demonstration of a lack of segment knowledge! Confirming a major paradigm shift in language preference, a recent study1 finds:

  • English is the overwhelming choice among second-generation Latinos and becomes nearly absolute among third-generation Hispanics.
  • Acculturated first-generation Latinos prefer English language television and marketing.
  • Second- and third-generation consumers also demonstrate a clear preference for English-language television.

One of the most comprehensive studies to date, Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention, shows, at least in the realm of language, the children of recent immigrants are learning English; however, the study also found that Hispanics retained their native language longer than other immigrant groups. Despite the staying power of Spanish, by the third generation, only 17 percent of individuals of Mexican heritage spoke Spanish fluently; the number dropped to five percent by the fourth generation.

And Then, There's Spanglish to Consider…

Bill Teck, editor of The Official Spanglish Dictionary: Un User's Guía To More Than 300 Words That Aren't Exactly Español or Inglés, reveals, "sometimes there just isn't a word in English that really captures what we're trying to convey. In our attempt to…capture the vibe of one culture in the tongue of another, Spanglish emerges."

Puerto Rican linguist Salvador Tío reportedly coined the term Spanglish in the late 1940's. Tió also coined the term inglañol, a converse phenomenon in which Spanish affects English; the latter term did not become as popular as the former.

Linguistically, a person who is fully bilingual and who chooses to switch between English and Spanish, mid-sentence, is different from a monolingual Panamanian or Puerto Rican Spanish-speaker whose native vocabulary contains English words as a result of American influences. As a rule, Spanglish can be represented by:

  • Code switching, or moving from one language to another: “Hey, honey, ya tienes la cena ready?
  • Adaptation of an English word into a Spanish form: “Quiero parquear el coche” or “Necesito comprar londri sop.”
  • Translation of an English expression into Spanish using English syntax: “Te llamo para atrás” for "I'll call you back."
  • Straight phonetic translation: children's cold remedy Vick's Vapor Rub becomes bibaporú.

In Consideration of Hispanic Teens

From a demographic perspective, Hispanic teens play an important role in many companies' marketing plans due to their ever-expanding purchasing power and size. Hispanics are expected to reach 50 percent of the total teen population in the U.S. by 2020.

These teens tend to be very bilingual - speaking Spanish at home and English, or Spanglish, with their peers - so effective marketing will be less about the language and more about culture and values; i.e., “don't force me to choose one language, or one culture, over the other.” And because this segment is attitudinally dissimilar from other Hispanic segments, it is critical to approach your messaging with a completely different thought process.

Media consumption by the nation's Hispanic teenagers is expected to skew more toward English; although with the growing number of Spanish-media options in the U.S., they may stay tuned in to Spanish, at least a portion of the time. However, they likely won't be watching the same Spanish programming consumed by their parents. Instead, they will gravitate toward fresh programming approaches like Mun2 and Tr3s, which bill themselves as “bicultural entertainment destinations.”

Online Best Practices

When considering a Spanish version of your website, consider what Lee Vann, Founder and CEO of Captura Group, has to say, “the data is clear, online Hispanics use the Internet in both English and Spanish and a bilingual website has many advantages for marketers and users alike. First, by providing your site in both languages you are giving consumers the choice of which language they want to interact with your site in. [sic] By providing a Hispanic online experience in both English and Spanish, you will send a strong signal to the U.S. Hispanic market that you are investing in them. This investment will be rewarded by loyalty and positive word of mouth, which is especially important online.”

Direct Mail and Language Preference

A number of national list brokers offer lists compiled through proprietary formulas of demographic and geographic criteria. According to Rick Becker of AllMedia, Inc., “knowing that each ethnic group has a distinct culture and a distinct world view, our Ethnic and Religious Encoding System incorporates the idea that each group has last and first names that will be unique to that group. By applying specific criteria in a specific order, this system analyzes both an individual's first and last name and applies, in a specific order, ethno-linguistic and geocentric rules to both the surname prefix and suffix and identifies the specific ethnic, religious, and minority status of individuals, even an individual with a multiethnic surname.”

Some lists offer “Spanish language preference” as a select. Lists that reflect individuals who have responded to DRTV messaging on Spanish-language networks may be of particular interest because they suggest a consumer's propensity to rely on Spanish when making purchasing decisions. However, unless you are absolutely certain of your target audience's language preference, consider providing your direct marketing message in both English and Spanish.

So What Do I Say?

The Spanish language is alive and constantly changing; new words and phrases appear regularly. Many U.S. companies commonly attempt to reach the Spanish-speaking market through the use of translated marketing and advertising materials. Straight translations, which depend on an accurate linguistic text transfer from English to Spanish, tend to miss the emotional and culturally relevant elements. Some results will be there, but not with the strength and recall that a truly culturally attuned marketing effort can attain. In fact, in some instances, direct translations can be misinterpreted or even offensive.

When appropriate, strive to develop concepts in the preferred language of the audience. If the target is Spanish-dominant, develop and execute your creative concepts in Spanish. There are certain nuances and experiences that the native Spanish speaker will find lacking in translated copy. Endeavor to maintain that integrity on behalf of your clients.

When a project entails bilingual communication, the preferred approach is to transcreate (or adapt) the message. Transcreation is the process of determining the suitability of an original creative message to an ethnic group, and if suitable, transferring the creative concept, not just the words, in an appropriate tone and graphic look. Basically, a translation is about words, while transcreations are about ideas. Keep in mind that bilingual Hispanics may compare your Spanish version to the English version to ensure that they are receiving the same message, in both languages.

In conclusion, it is critical to understand the relationship the consumer, or prospective consumer, has with your product or service. Cultural insights are vital to developing results-oriented messaging, as is the identification of socioeconomic indicators. The key to successfully engaging Hispanic consumers lies in segmentation and localization. It is absolutely essential to appeal to all aspects of the consumer, not just his or her ethnicity or language preference.

At that end of the day, it is time for organizations and agencies alike to stop confusing Hispanic Marketing with Spanish-language Marketing and start speaking to the market in a way that suggests you've done your homework!

1 “Acculturation and Beyond” Hispanic Segmentation Study, authored by David Morse, President and CEO of New American Dimensions, 2008.