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There is just one written Spanish language. However, there are Spanish regional varieties or "dialects" when it comes to the spoken word. While it is possible for Hispanics to understand each other because they all speak the same language, there are also significant differences depending on the country of origin. Think of it as akin to the differences among the English spoken in United States, Great Britain, Australia, Jamaica, and South Africa. There is no doubt that you can communicate with each other, but sometimes the meaning is lost due to regional differences.
The Spanish differences are often subtle but sometimes drastic. This can become very challenging in marketing products and services. In the late 1990s some food manufacturers decided to capitalize on a very popular Latino flavor that is found in almost every Latin American country. It consists of a milk caramel we now know in the U.S. as Dulce de Leche. Not all Latinos, however, knew the flavor by that name. While Cubans and Argentineans call it “dulce de leche,” in Mexico they call it “cajeta”, and in Colombia the call it "arequipe." Another example of the variety in the language are new words that entered the vocabulary differently in different countries. The word “computer,” for example, is known to most Latinos as “la computadora.” In Spain, however, they refer to a computer as “el ordenador.” These are just two small examples of the complexity of the Spanish language and its array of spoken varieties.
When conducting research among Latinos it is imperative that you hire a company that specializes in their culture with a staff of professional fully bilingual moderators, interviewers, analysts, translators and simultaneous interpreters. As Hispanic market consultants we pay close attention to these regional differences. Knowing how to speak the language so that everyone understands you well is sometimes a challenge. And when it comes to slang, the Hispanic segments seem to speak different languages altogether. It is important to be aware of these language issues when creating advertising campaigns that target the U.S. Hispanic market.
The language problem gets compounded when it comes to translations. The Hispanic marketing world is full of anecdotes from failed advertising translations. The now quintessential example is the translation of the old Perdue chicken slogan “it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken”. Just knowing that the word tough in Spanish could also mean “sexually potent” and chicken is like saying “chick” or “girl” – well, you can translate it yourself! The moral is – you cannot just translate the ad copy. Some problems again derive from differences in the language. A person trained in Castilian Spanish may have a perfect translation that becomes offensive to Mexican-Americans. One of our areas of expertise is testing Spanish language copy to make sure that it communicates the intended meaning to all Latino sub-groups.
The proverbial Melting Pot where all immigrants assimilated into one American society is no longer applicable. When other big immigration groups came into this country a few generations ago the situation was very different from what it is today. Many early immigrants made the hard decision to come to America with an understanding that they were breaking ties with their old country. Learning a new culture and a new language was not a choice. Our society was a true melting pot and immigrants were expected to fully assimilate into the American culture- but things have changed. Today the term Salad Bowl is often used as a substitute for the Melting Pot. In a salad you may have different ingredients tossed together to form a perfect combination; but the ingredients maintain their differences and do not blend into the mix.
Assimilation no longer works because our society is different now from what it was before. New immigrants today can easily maintain close ties with their home country through Internet connections, telephone communication, and accessible travel. They are also able to have access to their cultural heritage and language through product and service offerings that are targeted to the Latino community. The idea of diversity and maintaining one's heritage has become very important in the American culture and works against the assimilation tendency.
For more information see the post “U.S. Hispanics need to learn to speak English!” Says who? in the Latino Opinion blog.