“Bouna sera, bouna sera,” lamented Vito Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather. After being asked to murder for money by his Italian undertaker acquaintance, Don Corleone emotionally replies to his petitioner in Italian, signifying his deep disappointment. This dialogue detail from The Godfather highlights that people instinctively react in their native tongues when mining the depths of emotion. New insights suggest that director Francis Ford Coppola’s intuition on the use of Italian dialogue here is backed by social psychiatry, and unconscious vs. conscious brain processes. Brands would be wise to understand why.
Many studies have highlighted that Hispanics, Chinese and other non-native English speakers, proficient in English, have a deeper emotional reaction when addressed in their native tongue. The notion that in-language marketing communication “hits the heart, not the brain” with ethnic consumers may not be news, but exploring linguistic theory might help explain why, and just how important it is.
You Think as you Speak
Like Coppola, brands have tried for generations to use the right language when reaching out to consumers. Whether the word is “boss,” “cool” or “lit” makes a difference. Brands want to signify empathy, relevance, connection, or cultural leadership.
Copywriters believe what several linguist academicians profess — language helps shape reality. Of 7,000 known languages of the world, several have words and phrases that embody concepts such as time, spatial relationships and gender, which in many ways define what these realities become.
One example of linguistic relativism is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Sapir): “that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience.” Sapir and Whorf argue that “the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group.”
It’s Hard to Think Fast if you Speak Slow
Daniel Kahneman won a Noble Prize by pointing out humans have conscious and unconscious ways of processing reality – “System 1 is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach, [and] System 2 is “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates.”
From an recent article on morality-and-language, Janet Geipel of the University of Trento found in her 2015 study that there is a distance created between emotional and moral topics when speaking in a second language. Basically, “people are more likely to act less emotionally and more rationally when speaking their second language.”
Michael Corleone was aided in shooting Sollozzo (the Turk) by speaking in Italian. Michael was more in analytical mode when grabbing the gun from the bathroom and rationally processing when thinking in a second language. A reality perceived by cultural concepts codified in language.
So, what does this mean for marketers winning over non-native English speakers?
There is more evidence that in-language marketing is a powerful tool in winning the hearts of consumers and impacts unconscious System 1. Brands that craft executions using native language, or use key phrases or word selection, cannot just provide more empathy and cultural connection, but may traverse the neural pathways to the brain’s reptilian core.
Having skilled partners who understand the language, the culture and the social context will serve the role of a good movie director, and help you avoid clichés and mistakes. Marketers should take some time to understand the power of language, and make your non-native language consumer “an offer they can’t refuse.”