Se habla español. Un poco.
Speaking the native language of your audience for effect is a double-edged sword.
Since the late 1980’s when the U.S. Hispanic market emerged as a burgeoning consumer segment with considerable purchasing power, just about everybody wanted a piece of the action. The Spanish language became the entry point to win the hearts and minds of recent arrivals and established Latinos unified by the language of Cervantes.
Thirty years later, not much has changed, save that the demographic segment exceeds 57 million and $1.3 trillion in spending power. Yet, non-Latinos who court us continue to try their hand at speaking español to build rapport.
Though this article was written a few days after the first Democratic Primary Debates in Miami, the lesson is an evergreen cautionary tale that every public speaker should heed.
1. Keep your comments in Spanish very brief, simple and easy to pronounce. Beto O’Rourke mangled his call for equality with the wrong sentence structure and subject-verb agreement. The phrases sounded memorized, long and complex. A few well-rehearsed snippets would have sufficed. When in doubt, stick with “Buenas noches. Es un placer estar aquí,” remembering that in Spanish the “u” after a “q” is silent.
2. If you are Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish, it’s OK. Just don’t fake it. Julián Castro admits he does not speak Spanish well, but his one sentence in Spanish sounded like Google Translate. Seek the guidance of experts. Practice your Spanish “signature” line in the shower or, better still, set it to music to help your brain process it better.
3. Once you arrive at a catchy phrase in Spanish, run it through many filters for any connotation that could backfire. Spanish—spoken in 20 countries plus Puerto Rico– is a language of many dialects, and words vary in meaning among them. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio lapsed into Spanish to inspire striking workers at Miami International Airport. Out of his mouth came “Hasta la victoria, siempre” (“Onward to victory, always”). Unwittingly, he uttered the Cuban revolutionary slogan attributed to Che Guevara, who is reviled by Cuban exiles. De Blasio has been under fire by Miami media since.
When speaking to a bilingual audience, choose your words very carefully or you may make your audience cringe.