Learning A Second Language Can Make You Better At Marketing

For anyone that doesn’t know, prior to starting my career in social media marketing, I was actually a keen European Languages student with aspirations to travel abroad and teach English. I studied German from Year 7 all the way through to university, where I also picked up Spanish ab initio and graduated joint honours in both in 2017. Now I’m not saying everyone should go that far, but what I am saying is that my degree definitely hasn’t been wasted on me. Sure I changed my career path and didn’t end up translating or teaching, but learning languages is a completely invaluable experience that I actually believe makes me a better marketer. Here’s how. 


Learning a new language means analysing everything

When you’re learning a second language it isn’t as simple as that Friends clip of Joey repeating after Phoebe, ‘je’ ‘ma’ ‘ppelle’. Repetition is a key part, but the most important thing that you need to focus on when studying a language is analysis.


Why is a sentence structured a certain way? What word did they use here? Why did they phrase it that way? What is the importance of this rule? How does that compare to my native language? These are all questions you must ask yourself over and over again. With European languages, there are very different rules, and that’s before you consider irregulars, idioms and colloquialisms. This whole new world of grammar and vocabulary forces you to pull apart every sentence. Let’s take German as an example. 


The German language doesn’t just gender their nouns like Spanish and French, but also contains four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. These ‘cases’ completely determine your definite article (the), indefinite article (a), personal pronouns (he/she/it), possessive pronouns (my/your/their) and even words with no article/pronoun whatsoever. 


Ok before I lose you, let’s break down this sentence. 


I gave my mum a t-shirt. 


To determine the cases being used in this sentence, you need to take each word and analyse not only its position in the sentence but also its purpose. 


Nominative – Who is the subject of the sentence? I

Accusative – What is the direct object of the sentence? A t-shirt

Dative – What is the indirect object of the sentence? My Mum

Genitive – What is the possession of the sentence? – 


To make it easier, rephrase it in your head: What did I give? A t-shirt. Who did I give it to? My mum. And if it makes sense, you know the t-shirt is accusative and my mum is dative. So the translation becomes:


Ich schenkte meiner Mutter ein T-Shirt.


Exhausting, right? 


Aside from that, there are also certain prepositions and clauses that make certain phrases a different case in German, and commas are actual important grammatical features that can change the meaning of a sentence depending on the case. 


The main point here is that I have never learnt to be so analytical as I have by learning a second language. A six word sentence can take over 10 minutes to analyse. How does that help you as a marketer? It helps you constantly ask – WHY? In German you don’t just accept that the word ‘my’ translates to ‘meiner’, because it doesn’t. It translates to ‘mein’, and it depends entirely on the sentence as a whole to whether it’s mein, meine, meiner, meines, meinem and more, so you can’t just take what you see at face value, you’ve got to investigate. When you’re looking at social media performance for the previous month and there’s a spike, don’t just report ‘there was a spike’, look into it, delve into the data and work out why there’s a spike. 


Which leads me nicely onto point number two, patterns.


When learning a new language you have to look for patterns

Similar to my brief explanation of the four German cases above (I definitely wanted to petition to ban at least three of them during my degree), once you’ve analysed your words or sentence or phrase in front of you, it’s time to look for patterns. For this example, we’ll use the Spanish word ‘que’. 


You’ve probably all heard of ‘que’ (pronounced K for those of you that haven’t) and I’m sure you could stab a guess at its meaning. The most common would probably be ‘what’. In fact, the word ‘que’ as a conjunction has four meanings, 13 as a pronoun, four as a relative pronoun and a dozen more for comparisons, to express causation, to express reiteration, to express desire, to express surprise etc. etc. You get it – it’s a multifunctional word. And, as someone with a degree in Spanish, I still couldn’t tell you every single meaning and use of the word off the top of my head. But, what I could do, is infer its meaning in a sentence due to patterns. 


When I lived in Spain in my third year of university, all I heard on repeat was the phrase:

“¡Ay que calor!” 


Word for word, it translates as ‘oh what heat!’, but really it means ‘wow it’s hot!’. 


But what I learnt from this, is that instead of saying “it’s hot”, Spanish people tend to use the noun and stick the word ‘que’ in front of it to express just HOW hot it really is. So when I was then hearing phrases such as, ‘que sueño’ ‘que hambre’ ‘que listo’ ‘que frío’, although I had never been taught this use of the word, I could infer that they meant ‘how tired’, ‘how hungry’, ‘how clever’, ‘how cold’, etc. etc. In fact, ‘que calor’ was definitely my most used phrase of my whole time there, as I can barely cope in 18 degrees let alone 35. 


The key takeaway from this is to use your initiative when it comes to things that are unfamiliar to you and look at patterns to help you figure out the meaning. No one ever sat me down and told me that ‘que’ could be used in that way, but I learnt the pattern and took the meaning from that. Marketing is all about patterns and initiative. I could tell you every single ad type but if you throw a specialist market at me that I’m completely unfamiliar with, I could still probably put together a strategy based on what I’ve learnt in previous campaigns and previous patterns I’ve seen.


You don’t just learn the language, you learn the culture

I’m going to be honest, one thing I actually hated was how the language degrees at Lancaster University made you do 50% language modules and 50% ‘culture’ modules. But, I fell in love with the uni, so there you have it. Now, a little older and a (little) wiser, I completely understand why they do it. It’s all well and good knowing the conjugation rules of verbs in the preterite tense in Spanish, but if you don’t understand how the Spanish people actually use it, then you’ve not really learnt anything.


In Spain they were basically oppressed by their leader Francisco Franco in the Francoist era until well into the 1970s, and we all know about Germany’s struggles in the past. These may seem like boring, historical events that don’t have any impact on you asking for a beer in a foreign language, but if you really want to learn a second language, you need to understand the history behind it. Germany even has a word for the guilt that it feels as a country about the events of WW2, Vergangenheitsbewältigung (ver-gang-en-high-ts-be-vel-ti-gung). 


My final year dissertation was the translation of a 2,000 word short story written by a Chilean national in 1916 during the political upheaval of the Parliamentary Republic. During this period in Chile (including the Chilean Civil War) over 10,000 people were killed and the President even committed suicide. There was absolutely no way that I could translate a short story about a farm boy without there being some reference to the political climate at the time. As much as some of the words had direct translations, there were subtle phrases being used that related to the Loyalists and Rebels and the poverty described in the story was a result of the ongoing power struggle. Directly translating the words, without using the culture as a reference would have resulted in a very literal translation with no actual meaning or poetic value. 


Aside from this type of task, when it comes to a second language, you need to consider each word in its context. In English we say ‘top’, as in t-shirt/jumper etc., but if you were to directly translate ‘top’ into Spanish you would get ‘blusa’ or ‘camisa’, which mean ‘blouse’ or ‘shirt’, and it isn’t until you hit this problem that you realise that word just doesn’t exist in Spanish. Then you are confronted with a decision. Do I change the meaning of the sentence altogether and make it specific? Change it to t-shirt for example? Or do I describe what I mean? Without knowing the cultural context, how Spanish people actually explain an ‘upper garment’, whether it would sound really weird if you used ‘blusa’ to replace it, you can’t really make a decision. 


This applies to marketing in a very simple way. Know your audience. I can’t be any more simple than that. In the same way that the Chilean Civil War impacted my translation decisions, the purchasing decision of my millennial female audience is based on their interests and pop culture. You can’t expect to accurately reach your target audience without understanding their situation, what they are interested in and what is affecting them at the moment. Learning a language helps you get used to this. 


Please learn a second language if you can!

Y ya está! There’s how learning a second language can really help boost your marketing skills. I’m not saying it is essential, but it is 100% beneficial and taught me so much that is utterly invaluable. I may still panic when you ask me what impact Brexit will have on pensions in Germany (never forget my final year speaking exam), but I will always add in a random Spanish phrase to things, and I’ve even got some of the team chucking in phrases like muy apreciado, pato and gracias amiga. If you’re considering learning a new language, please do! You won’t regret it and it actually does make you a better marketer. 

If you want to find out more about some of the amazing marketing we do here at Embryo, get in touch!


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