Embracing Spanish
language (and culture)

What the United States stands to gain from bilingualism

Embracing Spanish
language (and culture)

What the United States stands to gain from bilingualism

Embracing Spanish
language (and culture)

What the United States stands to gain from bilingualism

Carreen Schroeder

Carreen Schroeder is the managing editor at Nimdzi Insights LLC, a global market research company for the language services industry. She also regularly researches and writes articles and reports for Nimdzi Insights, and manages the scheduling of all content.


ccording to the United States Census Bureau, as late as 2013, over 230 million US residents (aged 5 and older) spoke only English, accounting for nearly 80% of the US population. Out of this population, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center, has reported that only 30,000,000 were proficient in a language other than English — less than 13%. When we compare this to the Spanish-speaking and Spanish-Creole-speaking US population, nearly 60% were proficient in the English language (Figure 1).

The Spanish language is now considered the most commonly-spoken language in the United States aside from English, and the debate over bilingual education continues to cause social and political waves.

Some Americans worry that by investing in bilingual education, states will create an undue burden on the country’s economy. They stress that this money would be better spent on English-only education in order to ensure that increasing numbers of immigrants develop English-language skills. They argue that an education delivered solely in the English language will aid students in successfully completing post-academic studies, increasing the likelihood that they will attain economic independence.

Another commonly-held belief is that children who learn in a bilingual environment will struggle academically, and that mastery of their mother tongue will suffer as a result. But as with any debate, there is always another side to the proverbial coin.

Those who support bilingual education argue that a country’s investment may initially be expensive, but the payoff is well worth the financial pain. According to professor of economics François Grin, “…language is a good investment from the perspective of the economy as a whole, rather than just the individual or for the state.”

Proponents like Grin argue that the more a country invests in bilingual education, the more it is likely to succeed in international commerce, a view that is well-supported by recent statistics.

International trade

The economic playing field has gone global, and countries rich in multilingual skills will likely reap the benefits. Students in Switzerland are taught in the language of the region, which could be any of Switzerland’s four official languages — German, Italian, Romansh or French. In addition, they learn one of the other official languages, along with English. Switzerland is definitely reaping the benefits with an economic value of multilingualism at approximately 9% of its GDP.

The picture is less optimistic for the UK, which loses approximately 3.5% of its annual GDP due in large part to a deficit in language skills within the workforce. Similarly, recent studies have shown that one-sixth of US businesses lose out due to a shortage of language skills and limited cultural awareness. When we consider that Mexico is the second-largest export market for United States goods, the US stands to lose a great deal (Figure 2).

In the UK, the Labour government dropped languages as a compulsory subject for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Now, only 22% of state schools offer languages as a compulsory subject. In the United States, the fight for bilingual education has been won and lost time and again for almost 200 years. Inextricably tied to politics, economic worry and social ideals, language learning always hangs in the balance.

Academic and health benefits to bilingualism

Communications specialist Mia Nacamulli has spoken about the many benefits of being bilingual. She has pointed to the critical period hypothesis, which states that children who learn more than one language strengthen their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — the area of the human brain that aids in solving problems, switching between tasks, and maintaining focus by filtering out irrelevant information.

A recent study in the International Journal of Educational Development analyzed the results of bilingual education in Guatemala. The study found that students enrolled in bilingual education had higher attendance, higher promotion rates, lower repetition and lower dropout rates. Bilingual students received higher scores across the curriculum, including mastery of their first language, Spanish. The researchers further argued that the results demonstrate a cost savings of the equivalent of $5 million — a savings “equal to the cost of primary education for 100,000 students.” Perhaps the antiquated 1960s American notion that bilingualism actually slows down a child’s development, is just that — antiquated and unsubstantiated.

For adults, learning more than one language has also been shown to increase a higher density of gray matter that contains most of the brain’s neurons and synapses. This has shown promising evidence in the delay of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia by up to five years.

There is no doubt that the heated debate over the merits of bilingual education will rage on, but the proof is in the pudding. Investing in bilingual education has the potential to not only increase academic achievement but to also strengthen a nation’s economy. If the United States wants to continue to assert itself on the global economic stage, perhaps it’s time to embrace its second-most commonly spoken language.

Top three localization tips for the Hispanic US market

According to a 2012 Nielson Report, “Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic segment” in the United States, expected to grow 167% from 2010 to 2050, compared to 42% for the total population.

Language education and the language industry

America’s Languages, the report of the Commission on Language Learning of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, makes a persuasive case that every American student must master English. Additionally, students must have the opportunity to master their home language, whatever that might be, and they must have the opportunity to master additional languages.

While more than 60 million American citizens and residents speak Spanish, and another 10 million speak one of more than 400 languages, our national capacity to create bilingual citizens lags behind almost all of the developed world. Some of that gap derives from the unarguable benefit of having the world’s lingua franca — English — as our primary language. Some of that gap comes from the crazy quilt of education in the United States. The US encompasses 55 states and territories, some 18,000 local school districts, more than 30,000 private, parochial and charter schools, and more than 2,800 colleges and universities, each and every one with a great deal of autonomy and independence. There’s resilience, innovation and strength in our system, to be sure, but there’s no “magic wand” to guarantee that every student leaves school with some knowledge of another language.

Even so, parents, local political leaders and business leaders across the country have been adding language programs at a rapid pace, with a 30% increase in high school enrollments in the past ten years, and a fifteen-fold increase in dual language immersion programs since 2001. American schools can, and increasingly do, prepare students of all backgrounds for a multilingual world. A number of colleges and universities are taking advantage of the bilingual skills among their students to create programs in localization, translation, interpreting, global engineering, and other majors. GALA, the ALC and the American Translators Association are all actively engaging with higher education to promote the industry, and to get more young people in the human capital pipeline. Finally, the Joint National Committee for Languages works in Washington, DC, to boost federal support for research and education in languages, and to improve conditions for the language industry. Over 150 educators, linguists and language company representatives will come together for the yearly DC-based Language Advocacy Days February 14-15, 2019. Over the past six years, we’ve helped to build broad, bipartisan support for the language enterprise in the US. The recent midterm elections will only strengthen supporters of all things language on Capitol Hill, with all of our key Congresspeople and Senators returning, and several multilingual newcomers as well.

— Bill Rivers, executive director, Joint National Committee for Languages

Thinking of expanding your business in the American market? If you plan to promote your products and services in the United States, you may want to seriously consider investing in localization services ahead of time — even if you already have a presence in English.

Nearly 60 million residents of the United States speak Spanish as their first language. Migrants from Mexico are by far the largest group, accounting for over 63% of Hispanics. But people from many other Latin American countries account for a growing percentage of Spanish-speaking residents. For many years, the United States has become increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, with growing numbers of migrants from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina and even Spain.

Penetrating the American market is no longer as simple as ensuring your advertisements and promotions are well-versed in the English language and cater to American fashions, trends and ideologies. Ignoring the opportunity to promote your business in the growing Hispanic communities within the United States could be a costly venture.

As mentioned previously, Hispanics are the United States’ fastest-growing ethnic segment. But what’s interesting about this diverse community is their ability to pivot between the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking markets. Companies wishing to target the Hispanic community would be wise to devote considerable energy to assessing this opportunity in order to ensure that their marketing strategy will win over their target audience.

So, what does this all boil down to? What are the most important areas to focus on when developing a localization strategy to target the Hispanic US market? Here are just a few tips to consider:

Tip #1: Hire localization experts

It isn’t simply about translating your campaigns into Spanish. If that is your approach, you are almost surely going to waste your time and investment. It’s not about the words. It’s never been about the words. It’s about the culture. It’s about an intimate understanding of how the Hispanic population lives and what they value. Sure, you can spend the necessary time to study these cultural nuances, but that would take an awfully long time. And, well, time is money, as the saying goes. You would be much better served in teaming up with localization experts who specialize in this field. If you are going to invest in a targeted localization campaign, do it the right way — hire the experts.

Tip #2: Invest in hyperlocal strategies

It isn’t enough to just target the Hispanic community as a whole. It is about drilling down to the specific audience you are trying to target. What is the age group? Where do they gather for social interaction? What are their general interests and where do you see your product or services playing a key role? Meet your target audience at this ground level, and your localization efforts will produce much more meaningful results.

Tip #3: Employ the best of the best

No, your entire localization team doesn’t need to be Spanish-speaking, but they all should represent the best of the best. They should be at the top of their game in the localization space and rise to the challenge at hand. The Hispanic community responds very favorably to strong brand values, consistent delivery of high-quality products and services, and the ability to connect on the preferred social media platforms they frequent (pay special attention to mobile phones and tablets). So employ individuals who are keenly aware of these values. When your team is fully invested in continuous advancement in localization, you’re sure to be on a winning streak.

Unamonos para apoyar nuestra cultura Latina

The shrinking world is increasingly multicultural, and the United States is no exception. Americans are uniquely positioned to embrace their multicultural and multilingual communities. With endless opportunities for political, social, educational and economic advancement and growth, let’s join together to support our Latino culture — unamonos para apoyar nuestra cultura Latina.