Spanish, English or Spanglish — That is the Question

During recent prime-time broadcasts of the famous ABC network television series, “Desperate Housewives” and the Fox series, “House,” Target ran advertisements in Spanish. Telemundo, the Spanish media firm, has launched an English-language television network known as “Mun2.” Fernando Espuelas, the Hispanic marketing guru, has created VOY, which provides a wide range of English-language content targeted at the Hispanic market. And the cable TV channel SíTV broadcasts in English to young Hispanics who prefer that language. It seems the world is moving in reverse. Nevertheless, these are some examples of a new and growing trend. More and more marketing and communications experts are supporting the theory that Hispanics no longer have any reason to speak only Spanish.

 

“The Hispanic market has changed significantly, and so has the way we think about it,” says Felipe Korzenny, director of the Center for the Study of Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University. According to Korzenny, who co-founded the Cheskin marketing firm, ad agencies and the media “had a sort of monopoly on the Spanish language, so they sold Spanish as the way to reach the Hispanic market.   But the market has changed, and that approach is no longer sustainable because the numbers are different.”

 

Approximately 85% of Hispanics speak Spanish with some frequency at home, and Spanish is clearly supreme among Latinos, Korzenny adds. However, this does not mean that many Latinos cannot get along fluently in English.

 

The Triumph of Bilingualism

 

Korzenny notes that 70% of those 85% say they understand English “well” or “very well.” Silvia Ortueta, a media supervisor, segments Hispanics by their level of American cultural immersion, measured by such factors as language, friends, and neighbors. Her analysis also focuses on how Hispanics perceive their birth place, and the density of the market. Ortueta identifies three groups: The first group is the “acculturated” segment, comprising fourth (or even higher) generation Americans who feel more comfortable speaking English than they do speaking Spanish. They are 9% of the overall Hispanic market. The second group comprises the “partially acculturated,” who have lived in the United States for more than one generation. These people are familiar with U.S. culture and the English language, but they continue to be loyal to their Latino roots and culture. This second segment represents 66% of the overall market. The third segment comprises those who are “not acculturated.” Only recently arrived, these people are not familiar with American culture, and are totally rooted in their country of origin. They comprise 25% of the overall Hispanic market.

 

As Ortueta explains, all these groups “consume media in Spanish, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their level of acculturation. That includes even second- or third-generation Hispanics. Moreover, lately we are seeing a significant effort on the part of third-generation Hispanics to make sure that their children do not forget Spanish.” And they are achieving this goal, to a significant extent, through the mass media.

 

Generally speaking, says Ortueta, “acculturated people have a high economic level, and consume English-language media. But this does not mean that they do not consume Spanish-language media.”  Ortueta distinguishes between work and family life. The acculturated segment frequently consumes English-language magazines about politics and business, such as Newsweek and Time “because of their quality, and because they are exposed to English at work. They have to work and build relationships in English.” That explains why the major business magazines that target Hispanics, Hispanic Business and Hispanic Magazine, are in English, not Spanish. Nevertheless, Ortueta says, “when it comes to cultural topics, or in an effort to preserve their command of the language, these people often consume TV soap operas, and such sports shows as soccer on various Spanish-language TV networks and radio stations. The trend toward bilingualism is growing.”

 

Korzenny agrees. “High-level Hispanic executives speak more English than Spanish.” And the business magazines they read are aimed at the ‘general market’ even if they also target Hispanic readers. There is a simple reason why they prefer English-language media. “It sounds strange to translate terminology into Spanish because they learned it in English. However, this depends on the people involved, and if the market is in Latin America, there are more people who are not fluent in English.” Nevertheless, Korzenny adds, “lower-income Hispanics in the United States who, for example, take care of a garden or work as janitors frequently prefer Spanish.” Korzenny favors advertising campaigns in which information is targeted at bilingual Hispanics. That way, he says, “they can use either English or Spanish for those terms they do not understand. And at the same time, you are guaranteed to reach all Hispanics, no matter which language they are more comfortable using. It works like a learning tool.”

 

Another point in favor of a bilingual advertising approach is the higher income levels of bilingual Hispanics. According to the Spanish-language edition of Foreign Policy, those Miami families who speak only Spanish have an average income of $18,000; those who speak only English have an average income of $32,000. However, bilingual families in Miami have an average income of $50,000.

 

Hispanics Don’t Survive By Spanish Media Alone

 

Regardless of their level of acculturation, Hispanics nowadays have access to a broad range of communications media in Spanish. Univision, Telemundo and CNN in Spanish are some of the main television networks that broadcast in the United States. Latino radio stations flood the American airwaves with ‘Norteña’ music. And in the kiosks of California, Texas, New York and Florida, local Spanish-language publications occupy plenty of shelf space.

 

Nevertheless, Latinos do not limit themselves to reading, listening and watching Spanish-language media. According to Edward Schumacher, president and editorial director of Meximerica Media, a communications firm, “There is a great difference between first-generation Hispanics who arrive in the United States and read the press in Spanish, and the second and later generations whose primary newspapers are in English.”

 

To make things even more complicated, according to Korzenny’s research, Hispanics spend half their time watching TV in Spanish, and the other half watching in English. Because of this phenomenon, “The merchandising message you transmit in English must be compatible with what you say in Spanish; Hispanics watch both media. You can’t be sure that you will reach the entire Hispanic market if your campaign is exclusively in Spanish. That is not enough.”

 

Another phenomenon is quite symptomatic of current conditions in the United States. In many families, the father speaks both English and Spanish well. However, the mother speaks Spanish very well but English only fairly well. Meanwhile, the grandmother speaks almost no English. And the children speak more English than Spanish. In other words, within the same family, there are several different linguistic levels. Each family member sees his or her own programs and communications media. When they get together to eat, and they talk about brands and products they have been exposed to, they talk about what they have all seen. As a result, the message has to be the same. “The communications and marketing have to be in both languages; not merely in one language,” says Korzenny.

 

He adds: “In any case, some people who do not understand English well wind up watching television in that language. That’s because of the supply of channels; in Los Angeles, for example, there are some 500 channels in English and only four channels in Spanish. There are also some things that people can observe, even if they do not understand English.” As a result, “culture is often more important than language. There are some TV programs that touch on aspects of culture, and they do not necessarily have to be in Spanish.”

 

The Cultural Factor

 

As a result of these factors, Ortueta advises, “To reach Hispanics, you have to go beyond language and do it through the culture.” Korzenny also stresses the importance of culture. He questions research that guarantees that Hispanics pay more attention to ads in Spanish than they do to ads in English. “You can attribute that to the fact that ads in English are not culturally relevant, not to the language used in those ads.”

 

In addition, cultural fusion has provided room for two linguistic phenomena, “code switching” and “Spanglish.” “Code switching” refers to the grammatically correct use of Spanish expressions interspersed with expressions in English. Korzenny says it is “used a great deal by Hispanics in the United States and is increasingly used in advertising.” Spanglish involves the transformation of an English word into Spanish. For example, “carpet” becomes “carpeta” instead of “alfombra.” “Vacuuming” becomes “vacumar” instead of “aspirar.” A “quarter” becomes a “cora.” And “application” becomes an “applicación” instead of a “solicitud.”  In his view, Spanglish involves a degeneration of the English language. So, despite its popularity, Korzenny advises against using Spanglish in advertising “because it is neither predictable nor correct … No two groups of people speak the same kind of Spanglish, so it depends on the good or bad ear of the people who produce it. Moreover, the people who use Spanglish most are those who have not had any formal education in either of the two languages. In my view, that results in the impoverishment of both languages.”

 

Adapting to the New Setting

 

This bilingual setting also presents a planning challenge for the media. According to Korzenny, “In media planning, you have to begin from scratch, and ask ‘Who is watching this?’ Because of the current situation, you have to choose between media in English and in Spanish, rather than choose among media in Spanish. In addition, you apply your approach to all communications media, not just to television.” Ortueta agrees that you have to fine-tune your targeting, and “aim at the specific medium of the person who is hopefully watching your ad.”

 

When it comes time to segmenting this market of more than 40 million, you have to deal with other factors such as country of origin. Latin America offers a broad array of countries with a range of cultures. You also have to consider the specific U.S. state where people are living. When Latin Americans emigrate to the U.S., they usually concentrate in a few key states, including Florida, California and New York. Florida, for example, has a more Caribbean culture than California, where most Hispanics are of Mexican origin. Nevertheless this, too, is changing. Sergio Plaza, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, notes that a major geographic dispersion is taking place in the United States. Hispanic communities are starting to crop up in other states. From the linguistic point of view, Plaza notes, “it is likely that [such communities] will wind up being much more vulnerable” to English.

 

Given this trend, Korzenny notes, “Both agencies and advertisers must have broader vision. This is an important change that a lot of people are noticing. It is making lots of media people nervous because they have had a sort of monopoly. Now they have to reformulate their identity; that makes them nervous because they don’t want to lose their market position. The media will continue to be important, but they have to keep their eyes open.”

 

Take, for example, the steps taken by Telemundo when it launched its English network, known as mun2, and by Espuelas, which created the Voy group. According to Korzenny, “They realized they could not attract every Hispanic with the Spanish version.” The case of Univision is different. “For years, they have had a policy of not accepting ads or programming in English. I wonder what it will take for them to carry out a policy that adjusts to a market that is becoming more and more bilingual.”

 

Advertising agencies must also change. Nevertheless, Hispanic agencies enjoy an important advantage over agencies that are generalists; Hispanic agencies have both the Hispanic market and the market in Latin America. In Miami, says Plaza, “the local market gives you territory in the Latin American market. It is a strategic market for launching products for Latin America.” This also means that Hispanic agencies are prepared to study what is happening with those Latinos who speak English. However, they recognize that, to the degree the market is segmented, generalist agencies will begin to take positions.”

 

“Remember that the movement of Hispanic population into the United States is going to continue in the future, even if there is now an English-language market for Hispanics,” says Ortueta. Plaza agrees, but adds that “demographic growth will be larger among those born in the U.S. than from those who are going to arrive [in the U.S.]” As a result, “We don’t know a lot about what is going to happen to the Spanish language [in the U.S.]. Where is this trend going to wind up?” Plaza asks. His response: It depends on such factors as the proximity of Latin America, the importance of trade with the region and the extent to which Americans become aware of the importance of speaking a second language.

 

For his part, Korzenny says that a lot will also depend on U.S. immigration policy. “If they are successful in achieving their goal of stopping immigration, then everything will change. In such a case, bilingualism will become a lot more significant … Already, you cannot presume that a Hispanic person speaks only Spanish. There is now a different approach: You communicate with Hispanics by using Hispanic culture, regardless of the language, and depending on whom you want to reach.”

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