April 12, 2016

The Benefits and the No Buenos of Multilingualism

English, as the mother tongue of all things digital, has filtered into most of the world’s vocabularies by default. Purists all around have tried in vain to steer the masses towards their own languages when talking about the newest gadget, but little can be done against the overwhelming velocity of new technology. This, however, hasn’t diminished people’s preference for their own language when it comes to communicating online. The truth is, if what we want is to prompt some behavior on the web, the safest bet we can make is to talk to people in their first or native language.

“Can’t Read, Won’t Buy”

In their 2006 survey titled “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters on Global Websites,” Massachusetts-based market research company, Common Sense Advisory, found that people are overwhelmingly inclined to buy products if the website, and product description, is in their own language. A 2014 version of the same survey had similar conclusions. In these surveys, with over 3,000 participants from over 10 countries with different languages, a strong majority of respondents (75% in 2014) said they were more inclined to buy products in their native language. A significant amount also revealed they rarely ever bought from English-only websites.

This research may only explore buying preferences, but there is no reason for these findings not to apply to any other behavior or preference, particularly in the age of information. This is certainly not limited to convenience. There is an element of familiarity and reliability to a product, person, or institution trying to facilitate others’ understanding of what’s being sold, done, or needed. Efforts like adding language preferences to your website or app or using your constituency’s common tongue for outreach or recruiting build trust and loyalty.

Hispandering

In some instances, however, there is such thing as trying too hard. The term Hispandering popped up more than any other time before at the start of the 2016 election cycle. With this combination of the words “Hispanic” and “pandering,” some presidential pre-candidates of both parties faced criticism for trying to appeal to Hispanic voters not simply by using Spanish to deliver their message, but for trying to relate to Hispanic communities and their experiences by making use of, or imitating, nuances of the language that get lost in non-native speakers without cultural referent.

This time of constant innovation has brought plenty of tools to get our message through a language barrier with translation software and online tools, but none has the capacity for a foolproof delivery. Even a useful, intuitive, and free tool like Google Translate can only offer so much before looking botched. Colloquialisms, idioms, and grammar variants can ruin an otherwise acceptable translation. If we choose to use it, we should try to be short, simple, and straightforward. We run the risk of presenting ourselves in an unfinished or unprofessional way otherwise, which can be perceived unfavorably by speakers of the target language.

Trying to expand our message to reach the world’s diversity, whether locally or globally, is clearly an asset to whatever we try to do. The key, just as if we were talking to someone in our own language, is to use the available tools to the best of our abilities and recognize when we’re falling short. When in doubt, it never hurts to ask for help from people you’re trying to target. We’d be happy to tell you saying something is “no bueno” is not a thing.

 

Jesús Reyes-Velardo
Jesús Reyes-Velardo has a Social Action Research degree from the University of Puerto Rico and studies a Masters in Nonprofit Management at The New School in New York City. He often works with youth and in community settings. His experience includes coordinating healthcare services and programs, working as a community liaison and research assistant for a community radio station (WVQR 90.1 FM), and facilitating youth engagement projects, such as leading the Communications Rights discussions in the IV World Congress on Child and Adolescent Rights, and teaching Pre-University Spanish with Media Analysis courses at the University of Puerto Rico Summer School.
Interest Categories: Leadership, Organizational Culture
Tags: diversity