Census Bureau data for 2018 say that 67.3 million US residents spoke a language other than English at home. This number has more than doubled since 1990 and almost tripled since 1980. Given that in the future we are expecting even more migration, there will be more second language English speakers in the US. Marketers that want to reach non-native English speakers have two options: 1. since many of these consumers understand well the language, marketers can use directly English; 2. Marketers can use the native language of consumers.

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Some consequences are more obvious: using English, US marketers can:

  1. Reach also non-targeted people.
  2. Find more easily professionals that can craft messages in English.
  3. Reduce costs of communication in a country, in those cases where English is the “lingua franca” of a population with many native languages.

However, using consumers’ native language, marketers can:

  1. Make life easier for people that are not fluent in English.
  2. Convey that the message has been crafted especially for the target consumers.

Besides these evident consequences, in this “consumer discovery”, we will explore the more subtle reactions of consumers to messages in a first or second language. Despite it is designed for US marketers, these insights also apply to any language and any country in the world.

First and second language

First language is the mother tongue, the language that people learn growing up. It is the language that consumers first used to name the things in the world, and that consumers used when learning to speak. Some people that were born in multicultural families grow up using two languages at the same time, becoming bilinguals. In this case, they have two first languages.

Second language is the language that we learn later in life. Individuals can be very fluent in a second language, or they can learn it since they were at primary school. However, making a deliberate effort to learn a language and achieving the top results in fluency does not make the individual a bilingual, and this language should be considered a “second language”. There is a special factor about using the first language that cannot be matched by a fluent second language.

Consumers have a special relationship with their first language. It is closer to their heart, and it primes them with the most intimate social relations. Consumers perceive a second language as more distant; they have less life experience using that language, and there are fewer personal situations that involve second language.


Languages can prime consumers

First and second languages are related to different life experiences. Each language will remind consumers about the situations where they learned the language. This is because each language primes consumers with the environment more related to the language (e.g., school, work, family, friends). English is more likely to be learned in school and it is frequently required for business speaking. Therefore, English is more likely to prime second language speakers with a “performance mindset.” On the opposite, first language will prime speakers with their intimate social relations and their family values. For example, in a study on Mexican American participants, those describing themselves in Spanish were more likely to talk about their social relations and their family. Participants talking in English preferred instead talking about their job, education, and accomplishments.


Second language drives cognition

Surprisingly, people seem to take things more rationally and thoughtfully when they use a second language. Independently from the language, second-language speakers are less likely to approach a problem with “fast thinking”, and to use their intuition. Consumers are instead likely to use more effortful thinking, the “slow thinking” that is reserved for complex situations and that makes people more rational. A second language forces people to slow down and to use more of their cognitive resources and less of their intuition. In this way, consumers are less likely to fall into cognitive biases. For example, people are less superstitious when thinking in a second language than in a first language.


People make more rightful moral decisions when thinking in a second language.

Since second language forces people to use more of their cognition, they are less likely to cheat or to take immoral shortcuts. Studies have shown that people using more cognitive resources are more resistant to temptations, and cheating is just a temptation. This “second language morality effect” is one of the most surprising findings in this stream of research, and it tells us how important is to have cognitive resources to make the right decisions.


Emotionality and second language

Second language has lower perceived emotionality for speakers and listeners. Consumers listening to a second language are more likely to notice less emotional intensity because they have limited knowledge of the situations where an intense word is used. For example, consumers have no problem is using taboo/swear words in a second language, just because they have less experience of how much the social norm is against the use of these words. Native speakers will instead remember how they were scolded when they used a taboo word in the wrong situation. As a result, a second language conveys less emotional intensity to listeners and speakers. For example, in a study on native English speakers, participants reported that it was much easier for them to say out loud “Te quiero” than “I love you.”


Effects on survey respondents

Survey respondents that are reading a survey in a second language are more likely to report extreme values. This effect may seem in conflict with the finding that a second language reduces emotionality, but it is just an apparent contradiction. Consistently with previous evidence, people answering a questionnaire in a second language perceive less intense emotions. For example, the item point “Very dissatisfied” will be perceived to be less intense and less extreme for second language respondents. However, if second language consumers are experiencing a mild level of dissatisfaction, they may find that “Very dissatisfied” correctly describes their emotional state. In other words, second language makes people choose the most extreme values because respondents compensate the lower emotional intensity of the words with a higher extremity of the values.


Consequences for marketers:

  • First language primes a family mindset and can be more effective for family-related products. First language can be particularly persuasive for products that are more likely to be used in family settings, or when family values underlie product use. Examples of these products may include international phone communication services that immigrants use to talk with their families back home; food products from their native country that consumers buy to feel closer to their cultural origins; political messages that focus on family and community values.
  • Second language de-biases people. De-biasing people is important if your product suffers from cognitive biases. For example, if you are selling a costly product that will make people save in the future (e.g., solar panels, pension funds, electric cars), you will face consumers’ discounting of future gains and overestimation of immediate gratification. Using a second language makes people in a more cognitive mindset and may help them in overcoming this bias.
  • To prevent consumer cheating, you may use a second language. In a previous article, we have seen that most people act more morally in the morning than in the evening. If you want to prevent them to cheat, you may want to use a second language.
  • If you want to convey emotions, use a first language. Given the higher perceived emotionality of words in first language, you want to use this language when your message is full of emotions.
  • If you want to convey emotionality in a second language, you must be more extreme. It is better to tell your English speakers: “te quiero MUCHO” than “te quiero.”
  • You want to discount the extremity of second language survey participants. Survey participants that are not native speakers may give more extreme results, independently from the question you ask them. Therefore, you should discount their extremeness before comparing them to native speakers. A solution would be to administer some translated questionnaires to second-language speakers. Then you should compare the extremity of the questionnaires answered in the second and in the translated language, and discount the results of second language respondents.
  • Use strategically first and second language in open-ended answers and qualitative research to retrieve more information from participants. Market researchers can use first language to gauge the personal relation of the consumer with the product, and how the product relates to family and intimate relations. On the other side, researchers can use second language to retrieve other kinds of information, like how the product relates to professional life, consumers’ performance orientation, and their public image.



Take home message

Independently from the language, first and second language convey different mindsets. First language is more about the family and intimate relations, and it is more emotional. Second language is more about professional and public life, it is less emotional, and it decreases consumers’ biases. Consumers are more rational and less emotive in a second language, but they give more extreme values in surveys.


If you are facing a problem that is likely to lead you to biases, or if you think you are taking something too personally, try to use a second language to analyze the situation. The emotional detachment of second language may make you see things in a different light. Citing a title of an article in this area: “piensa twice.”


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.




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