By Lindsey Zimmerman
I first decided that I wanted to learn Spanish when I was about 10 years old. At that point in my life, I had my heart set on being a journalist when I grew up, and somehow I’d figured out that learning another language would come in handy for my dream job somewhere down the road.
Flash forward several years to today. I no longer want to be a journalist – I changed my major to PR at the beginning of this school year – but I am fluent in Spanish, which would probably make my 10-year-old self proud. Even more importantly, though, I’m confident that this ability will help me tremendously as I transition from college student to full-time PRo.
The first time Spanish came in handy for me (in a professional sense) was my freshman year of college. I was still a journalism major at that point, as well as the state news editor of The New Political. I was working on a story about immigration and had set up an interview with a man from Mexico (the father of a classmate) who had gone through all the necessary paperwork and immigrated to the U.S. with his family. His English was very limited, so I conducted the interview in Spanish. I was so nervous that I was shaking during the entire duration of our phone call (it was my first time having a long conversation with a native speaker, and I was terrified of messing up), but the interview went well overall. I translated his responses to English, and I’m proud of the article – both the final product itself and the process that it took to get there.
The benefits of knowing Spanish – or any second language – are abundant in PR and journalism because at the core of each of these professions is the concept of communication. In today’s increasingly global society, the ability to communicate effectively with people all over the world is valued more than ever. Spanish in particular is helpful at home as well as abroad: according to Pew Research, there are more than 37 million Spanish-speaking individuals in the United States alone.
Beyond just communication, another amazing benefit of knowing a foreign language – and one of the main reasons why I think everyone could benefit from learning one – is the fact that it forces you to open your mind and broaden your horizons. This is absolutely an important factor in PR and strategic communication in general, from creating campaigns that target different consumer groups to creating content that causes existing consumers to see things in a new light. A great example of this is Coca-Cola’s multilingual America the Beautiful Super Bowl spot. While this ad was not without its share of controversy, Coke used a variety of different languages to present a familiar patriotic song in a way that most people had never heard it before. And whether people liked the ad or not, it generated a lot of buzz for Coke and got people talking about the brand.
To turn the previous point on its head, being in a situation where you don’t speak the common language can open your mind as well. While studying abroad in Germany this past summer, I found myself struggling through simple tasks such as ordering a smoothie or mailing a package back home to my family. I constantly had to think on my feet and ended up using a lot of pointing and gesturing to get my point across when someone shook their head no in response to my “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” I picked up on several basic everyday German words and phrases while I was there, but this humbling and vulnerable experience gave me a much better understanding of how non-English speakers in the U.S. might feel.
My experiences with language have caused me to fall in love with it. I now have a crazy aspiration to learn as many languages as I can during my lifetime. And I can’t wait to see where this ability takes me professionally – I think it’s safe to say that there’s nowhere to go but up.