The Language Debate Heats Up

Reader Comments Revisited

By Published on .

Alberto Ferrer Alberto J. Ferrer
My previous post generated quite a lot of passionate reaction from many readers. Thanks to all who took the time to offer an opinion (or two).

There was strong presence of those who called themselves bigots as well as participation from those who would strive to set them straight. It was all very interesting and enlightening, as well as sobering.

They wrote about the history of this country, about colonization, about the new and old worlds, and about immigration. They wrote about culture and identity. All very interesting to me, but I want to re-focus on the core topic: language.

Why does a direct mail piece that had Spanish-language copy cause such a violent reaction?

Would any other language have caused the same passionate response?

No one really offered an opinion on that specific question. Is there something particularly offensive about Spanish?

I'd like to address some of the views posted by the readers. I'll start with the first comment, by Jim McGinn from Bonita Springs, Fla. He feels that people who live in the U.S. should speak and read English.

From a marketing standpoint, they still may respond better to communications in their mother tongue. They may have an easier time with the language they've spoken for most of their lives. Smart marketers know that taking into account consumer preferences when marketing to them makes sense. That includes language preference.

Apart from this, I would respond that Hispanics by and large do want to be fluent in English. They want to take part in the U.S. culture. The flip side, however, is that they don't want to do that instead of Spanish but rather they seek to have both.

Another point of view is from prolific comment-poster Mary Jessel of San Francisco. She writes that Spanish is a threat to this country's cultural heritage and warns marketers who "chase a Spanish-speaking dollar" that they will lose an "English-speaking dollar." I felt this was particularly ignorant as what Mary calls the cultural heritage of the U.S. is in fact the collection of many different cultures. It is our diversity that makes our culture unique. Further, I hope that Mary changes her mind about the dollar-chasing. As more and more marketers wake up to the reality of multicultural marketing, Mary will find more and more dollars being invested by smart marketers in consumers who are more comfortable in a language other than English.

Peter Verkooijen from Brooklyn writes that he had to learn English to live in the U.S. and he doesn't expect brands here to speak Dutch to him. He further asks why Hispanics would be exempted from learning English. Peter, the point is not that Hispanics are exempted from learning English. It is that speaking Spanish (or not speaking English) should not exempt them from being able to live and function in this country.

Mary from San Francisco later asserts that English is "our historical common language" going back 231 years. I find it convenient that she considers the country born in 1776 and ignores the fact that there were people here well before that and English wasn't what they were speaking then. There is also the irony that we speak "English" as opposed to "American."

All this got me thinking about my own life. I live in a multilingual household. My children will grow up speaking more than English. What will happen when I speak Spanish to my kids while in an elevator with other people? Will those around us think less of us? Will my kids be made to feel somehow different (lesser) because they speak more than one language?

There was enough opposition to the Spanish/bilingual point in my previous post that I can't help but wonder what those folks would do if they were the ones in that elevator with me and my kids. Would they say something to us? And how does that apply to people who are bilingual or to people who speak English and another language other than Spanish?

That leads me to think that it's not the language that bothers these people. It must be the culture. It must be that they look around and see the advances of other cultures in the U.S. (for example, the Hispanic culture) and they see that as an affront to their personal way of life. And what about non-Hispanics? What about blacks? Depending on their ethnic background, they may speak English (or not) as well as other languages. Asian Americans also may speak one or several different languages which may or may not include English.

What will it take for these people to realize that what makes this country great is the rich cultural fabric that is woven by the intersection of different ethnicities, cultures, languages, and points of view? What will it take to convince them to stop wallowing in their fear?
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