How important is language for Latinos?

Spending time with family this past summer, I was made aware of how multilingual Latino individuals can be. My mother-in-law came to visit from Puerto Rico a few weeks ago and we all gathered for a cookout one day. It was interesting to see the various ways everyone would communicate and interact. My mother-in-law practically spoke all in Spanish. My wife, who grew up both in Puerto Rico and the U.S., easily toggled between English and Spanish. The younger generations, who spoke primarily in English, would occasionally try their hand at Spanish with our visiting matriarch. Yet, despite our various levels of bilingualism, we all able to share together as a family. Assuming our family is just as common as many other Latino families, to what extent should language determine how companies and organizations connect to Hispanics in the U.S.?

Multicultural expert and author David Morse wrote a blog post on Advertising Age recently that challenged Hispanic marketers to move beyond focusing primarily on the Spanish language and embrace cultural aspects that deliver value for Latinos. He states:

“On one side have been those that argue in favor of Hispanic exceptionalism. The argument goes that Hispanics, unlike other immigrants to the U.S., have a unique relationship with their native tongue and that they will hold on to it longer than other immigrants.”

Morse then addresses the other side of the coin:

“The other argument is that the children of Latin-American immigrants will be either English dominant or bilingual, their grandchildren will be English dominant and their great-grandchildren will be English speaking ‘monoglots.’ “

I happen to share many of Morse’s sentiments that suggest Hispanic marketers should focus beyond language. However, as marketers, there are other factors to take into consideration. Joe Villa, another multicultural expert from the Los Angeles based agency Sensis, recently blogged in response to Morse’s post. Villa, also a proponent of culture over language, hypothesizes on how a philosophy that focuses beyond language may affect the Hispanic marketing industry. He raises the following questions

“If Hispanic advertising moves beyond language, how does that further complicate the dynamic between Hispanic ad agencies and their increasingly antagonistic general market pals?

Even if agencies started pushing this philosophy, it doesn’t mean that clients are going to buy-in?

If Spanish language advertising is wrong, how do we reconcile that with the huge ratings of the Spanish-language broadcast and radio?”

Both these gentlemen make some very good points. I have no doubt we will all be watching intently to see where the future of Hispanic marketing will take us and how these philosophies and ideas will effect that future. I propose we examine a future that addresses both the ideas of language as a significant cultural driver and the use of values, attitudes, and beliefs as the core for delivering culturally relevant messages. Much like the example of my family gathering I mentioned above, Latinos will share and connect in ways that incorporate both language and culture. Perhaps we can influence a future that addresses the many multicultural needs of our Latino communities – like my family and yours.

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