Hispanics and Language – English or Español?

February 12, 2012 Author: Roy Eduardo Kokoyachuk

Marketers frequently struggle with whether they should communicate to Hispanic consumers in Spanish, English or both. In an ideal world, where budgets aren’t an issue, “both” would likely win out. This being the real world, it’s often necessary to decide where to allocate limited resources. When making this decision, marketers often turn to Census data for Hispanic market trends but the numbers often create more questions than answers.

For example, according to the 2009 American Community Survey 70% of Hispanics speak Spanish at home but 77% speak English only, well or very well. Therefore, there’s no clear cut answer there. Another option is to survey the various studies and reports from entities that cater to various segments of the Hispanic market. This route can present problems as well since the data may be influenced by the study sponsor’s assumptions e.g.: Spanish language media outlets tend to see Spanish as the most effective medium (with many valid reasons as to why this is true), venues that cater to English speaking Hispanics view the situation in the reverse. The answer, therefore, is to let the consumer tell you how they want to be communicated with depending on content and context. Some common guidelines include:

    • When trying to connect emotionally, Spanish is frequently most powerful because it often taps into childhood memories of mothers or grandmothers.
    • When trying to convey technical information, be it regarding banking, insurance or retirement products, English often makes the most sense since translations often create confusion when a term has no agreed-to or commonly known Spanish language corollary. The issue can be further complicated if the consumer has no previous experience which the category, even in their country of origin.
    • Bilingual messaging is best when communication with a family as a whole. Hispanics often make decisions communally and several generations of a family may participate in the process with varying levels of English language proficiency. A bilingual campaign allows different family members to assess the message in their preferred language and provides bilingual consumers with the ability to compare both messages to ensure they’re accurately interpreting it


The above rules are a good starting point, but are not applicable to all situations. The U.S. Hispanic market is not a homogeneous mass. Language preference varies considerably by country of origin and geographic region. The previously mentioned American Community Survey notes that 92% of U.S. Dominicans speak Spanish at home but only 66% of Puerto Ricans do. While a full 35% of the populations of both California and Texas speak Spanish, only 1% of the populations of some Northeastern and Northern Great Plains states do. Therefore, in order to accurately craft a marketing language mix it’s usually necessary to conduct some primary Hispanic market research to reveal the target segment’s characteristics, expectations and preconceived ideas on the offering.

This approach requires some effort but yields the greatest rewards and saves money in the long run as it prevents costly mistakes and/or unnecessary expenditures.

Roy Eduardo Kokoaychuk

Partner, ThinkNow Research