Two Harvard professors published an interesting study a while back in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology on how bilingual people perceive the world, and the role language plays in that perception. It is a fascinating look at how language actually shapes our preferences and the notion that bilinguals can actually have a different set of preferences or biases depending on what language they’re asked in. The winning quote of the article was “it’s like asking your friend if he likes ice cream in English, and then turning around and asking him again in French and getting a different answer.”
Intuitively, those of us who were raised in a multilingual and bicultural environment already know this. Language sets the context from which you assess a situation. The familiar, comfortable language of our parents or grandparents puts us in a different frame of reference as we communicate with others. For example, when encountering a stranger, bilingual Hispanics might be more circumspect about the person if they interface in English, but may be more open and less guarded if they communicate in Spanish. In that situation, the comfort and familiarity of the Spanish language could be associated with family, warmth, emotion (for both parties) and, therefore, the interaction might be more familiar.
The Harvard study first focused on bilingual Moroccans, who were asked to make associations about French names and Arabic names. When asked in French, they had positive associations about the French names and when asked in Arabic, they had negative associations. Clearly, the language they were using played a role in their preferences, though some of this might be related to the negative cultural baggage surrounding the colonial French history in Algeria, but, still, it varied depending on what language was used. Later, they conducted the same research using bilingual Hispanics in the U.S. and had the same result.
The study seems to point to the notion that language shapes our preferences and that context matters. The implications, for multicultural marketing and specifically, marketing to bilinguals, is that bilinguals often live in two discrete cultural paradigms with different values, attitudes, biases, perceptions, and yes, preferences. That makes it doubly important to “sell” them in both languages as there could be conflicting biases, preferences or values in their Spanish-speaking milieu that could counteract whatever messaging they might get in their English-language environment.