Just How Important is Spanish for Bilingual Hispanics?

What’s your earliest memory? Maybe it’s playing with a favorite toy. Or your fifth birthday party. Chances are, that memory has a lot linked to it: faces, colors, sounds, scents, and language. Let’s focus on the language of that memory for a minute. 

If you only speak one language, then (presumably) the language of your memory is the same one you use today. If you’re lucky enough to be fully bilingual however, the language of your earliest memory may be different than the one you use in daily life.

This has profound implications for targeting bilingual consumers.

Preferences of Bilinguals  

There are 14 million strictly bilingual (proficient in reading and writing in English and Spanish) consumers in the 18+ U.S. Hispanic population (40% of total). These bilinguals navigate easily between cultures and languages and are quite adaptable. Despite complete fluency between languages though, they tend to maintain a deeper, more emotional connection to the first language they learned, or “L1.”

There are some who learn multiple languages simultaneously from the beginning—and this is becoming more and more common as research supports its benefits—but roughly 90% of bilingual Hispanics have a definitive L1 (either English or Spanish).

So you might be thinking…OK, that makes sense, but why did you ask me to dredge up my childhood memory? Good question.

Emotions Rise Up

We spent months diving deep on language, and, more specifically, the nuances of bilingualism. We found that L1 languages offer deeper wells of emotional connection because they accompany the earliest, most formative memories. This means that, despite being completely fluent and proficient in two languages, there is more emotional power embedded in L1 languages.

So what’s the breakdown between English as L1 and Spanish as L1 for U.S. Hispanic bilinguals?

  • 62% Spanish
  • 27% English
  • 11% find it too hard to disentangle which language came first

Roughly 9 million—have a deeper, more emotional connection to Spanish. It resonates on a different level than English, and it has nothing to do with ability. As one L1 Spanish bilingual describes it:

“The Hispanic side of my culture is my innermost feelings, my spirit, loyalty to family and friendships that are forever… [the] love in the language, adding the ‘itos’ and ‘otes’ for example and those specialties that make you feel close to every Latin person even at first meeting… [Speaking in Spanish] is almost instinctual, a matter of the heart.”

Impacts on Messaging

This is an insight windfall for marketers: brands in more emotional categories, equity-building messages have the potential to resonate more deeply with bilingual consumers if they communicate in Spanish. Savvy marketers who understand this will feel confident that language choice isn’t strictly a one-dimensional, functional tool; instead, they’ll approach language with a two-dimensional mindset: one is, of course, functional and rational, but the other is emotional. Language offers the opportunity for deeper resonance and connection.

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