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Bilingualism is not only trendy–it makes you better too

Bilingualism is not only trendy–it makes you better too

In a shift from previous generations, Latinos are embracing bilingualism beyond anything their predecessors could have ever imagined.  Turns out bilingualism is actually good for you.  Rationally speaking, bilingualism has been scientifically proven to make you smarter.  Emotionally, bilingualism aides Latinos in finding a sense of place and belonging as they deal with the complexity of being a majority in their neighborhoods while simultaneously acknowledging their minority status within the culture-at-large.  This emerging learning is poking holes at those who believe that the “General Market” will morph into a true melting pot/multicultural market where the casting and ‘nuances’ need only apply.  The times they are a changing.

It was not very long ago that Latinos, or Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, or Spanish Cholos as they were known at the time, dissuaded their children from speaking Spanish.  Spanish was the embarrassing language of immigrants.  Tracy Lopez explains the historical context of this moment in her blog post “Non-Spanish Fluent Latinas: ‘Don’t Judge Us’:”

“There are various reasons why parents consciously choose not to pass their language onto the next generation. Those raised (sic) during the 1930′s and 40′s recall being forbidden from speaking Spanish at school, and being punished if they did. Due to racism during that time, even speaking Spanish in public was cause for being told to leave the area in some cases. Many who experienced this kind of discrimination didn’t teach Spanish to their children. In turn, these second generation Latino Americans were unable to teach it to their own children, even if they wanted to.”

I personally remember stories from my aunt about being hit with a ruler at school for speaking Spanish, and my dad being pelted with rocks on his walks home from school also for Spanish.  Today, the concerns against bilingualism, from Latino parents, are not as violent- but concerns about their children being at a disadvantage to English-dominant students should their Spanish take up too large a role in their lives still exist.

Education, however, is aiding the dramatic shift in attitudes towards bilingualism.  The New York Times, reporting on a widely distributed study, outlined the benefits of bilingualism in the article “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter:”

“…there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

This is certainly a strong case for bilingualism that starts from early child development all the way through our twilight years.

There is also a very strong emotional argument to be made as Latinos transition from a culture of happenstance to a culture of choice: language provides membership.   Whereas before Spanish was used to delineate the established from the impoverished- today’s ‘real’ Latinos at the very least understand Spanish.  Read what Disney princess Selena Gomez had to say:

“I practice it, but I can understand it better than I can speak it…In a lot of my interviews that I did recently, they would speak to me in Spanish and I would answer back in English. They were like ‘You pick it up so easily,’ but I don’t want to say it in Spanish because I’d be embarrassed if I mess something up.”

She added:

“I really want to get Rosetta Stone, because I really need to learn my language.”

Eric Jude Cortes, in this blog post “Latinos, teach your children Spanish,” would very much approve of Selena’s sentiments.  He outlines the reasoning for bilingualism along the contemporary line of thinking that bilingualism makes you more competitive in today’s market place; but it is his last point that really starts to get at the emotional benefit of carrying on two languages:

The Spanish language makes us Latino – You knew this was coming. Let’s be honest, if I were to ask you what makes you Latino, in addition to mentioning food, dancing, and the fact that we invented enjoyable procreation, you’re eventually going to say speaking Spanish. Our language helps define us. Personally, I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. I had to learn it the hard way – through friends, traveling, and school. Once I became truly bilingual, yes, I did feel my inner Latino grow. Spanish makes us, us.”

Which introduces a new sentiment for Latinos that do not speak Spanish: regret.  How often do you hear Latino adults say “I wish my parents had spoken more Spanish to me as a child?”

There is a hypothesis out there that says that many trends work their way down from the top, such as healthier eating, smoking cessation, financial investments, etc.  If this is true than bilingualism is just starting to gain momentum, rather than having peaked or slowing down.  Blogs such as Mamiverse advocate and provide help for Latino parents raising bilingual children.  On the site Latin Baby Book Club parents can find bilingual, Spanglish, and Spanish books for their children.  Do not over look the fact that both sites are primarily written in English.  Cheerios is on track this year to distribute more than six million bilingual children’s books free inside specially-marked boxes.  Furthermore, Long Beach, California offers an elementary school program of full Spanish language immersion as one of its public school options at Patrick Henry Elementary School; in addition, to the Estrellitas program which brings together native Spanish speaking children being raised in bilingual homes to encourage bilingual social interaction from the early development stages.

Today’s marketers should pay close attention to this evolving movement.   First, in their “New Generation Latino” report, Mintel says that “almost half of Hispanics aged 25 – 45 prefer to spend time with individuals of their same ethnic group”; this at prime child-rearing and income-building life-stage.  If people feel like this about their friends- why would the way brands behave be different when trying to build relationships and relatability?

Secondly, this is happening at time in history when media continues to shift away from viewership for the masses to viewership for the individual.  With hundreds of programming options available on multiple screens, people are getting accustomed to exactly what they want to watch- rather than that which has been pre-selected for them.

Finally, will the future marketplace look like Miami or San Antonio?  Any Latino, or anyone for that matter, visiting Miami knows that there, Spanish, or Spanglish, fluently runs through all aspects of life.  But one should not lose sight of the fact that San Antonio, the long regarded “acculturated” example of the American Latino universe, is starting to look more and more like Miami.  Don’t believe it?  Wait until you need to book a translator for your next focus group with 18 – 24 year olds.

The times they are a changing, indeed.

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  • Theresa Chaverot says:

    So true and strong advocate of spreading the language! it may make us smarter but what matters is that it gives us a wider horizon to interelate with different countries and cultures! imagine the posibilities if we encourage all people to explore more than one language….

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