We’ve been told for decades that the number of Spanish speakers in the United States is growing rapidly. As a child, I recall debates about whether Spanish was so prevalent that it should be considered a national language. It was frequently said that learning to speak Spanish would be essential in our careers. Many people simply ignored these reports. But while it’s rare still to hear talk about Spanish becoming a second national language, we all realize the prevalence of the Spanish language and that the predictions of its growth and influence in all aspects of American culture, from business to politics and entertainment, have turned out to be true.
So just how prevalent is Spanish usage in the United States? Based on the latest U.S. census, there were nearly 60.6 million Hispanics living in the United States in July of 2020. At present, Hispanics account of 18% of the total U.S. population. Of the Hispanics living here now, more than 37 million speak Spanish at home and an estimated 16 million have trouble speaking English. If the population of Spanish speakers who have trouble communicating in English were a state, it would represent the 5th largest state in the country. They would be larger than the state of Pennsylvania, just 3 million shy of exceeding the size of New York.
Yet, while we knew for years that the population was becoming increasingly Hispanic, many local businesses have done little to prepare themselves. If you need proof, we can see how woefully unprepared community hospitals were during the covid 19 pandemic. Across the nation, hospitals failed miserably in their attempt to respond to Spanish speakers. Even in cities like Houston that have some of the highest Latino populations in the country, hospitals failed to recognize their shortcomings until it was too late. One such example was July Garza of Houston, Tx, a mother of eight, who purchased a covid-19 test after she became ill, experienced difficulty breathing and lost her sense of taste. Her inability to communicate in English to clinic staff led to days trying to get tested at her local clinic. Eventually, she paid $110 for a blood test that indicated a negative result printed in large letters and underlined twice, something easy to understand in almost any language.
The next day, still feeling sick, she collapsed while taking a shower. Her conditions worsened and her children began suffering similar symptoms. Later determined Garza was administered the antibody test, not the test to determine if she currently had the virus.
The takeaway is that even community hospitals, and other organizations that should be leading strategic multilingual communication reform were unprepared. It took months to recognize a need and develop inexpensive preventative measures, such as bilingual forms, flyers, and pamphlets. The front desk could have been staffed with Spanish-speaking employees to answer questions from crowded and mostly Hispanic waiting rooms. Instead, during the height of infections, hospitals were scrambling to develop strategies to address the surging numbers of non-English-speaking Latinos being infected. Eventually, communities launched communication strategies using local translation services and outreach technology initiatives such as Connective which uses SMS text messaging technology to rapidly educate and inform non-English speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese backgrounds about the virus. Other hospitals, clinics, university medical centers and Connective also began working with businesses like 24 Hour Translation Services in Houston, TX to develop rapid Spanish document translation delivery solutions to ensure foreign language speakers received the properly translated forms and literature once they were inside the hospitals and clinics.
Recognizing the Importance of Spanish Communication Strategies
If community clinics and hospitals were this unprepared in dealing with Spanish patients, imagine how other smal-l and medium-sized businesses across the country are responding to the growing numbers of Spanish-speaking consumers. These lessons learned from covid should give cause to all businesses to rethink the importance of developing Spanish communication strategies, not only to attract and retain Spanish-speaking customers, but also to serve the large numbers of Spanish-speaking employees that they may already have.
An Opportunity or a Burden? It’s What Business Owners Make of It
Under the Biden administration’s immigration policies, business owners should expect the number of Spanish-speaking citizens to continue to increase. While natural population growth remains flat, the population in cities like Dallas, Houston, New York, Chicago and elsewhere is growing. Foreign immigration is a major contributing factor. Instead of seeing immigration as a burden, business owners should try to find potential opportunities for serving and profiting from Spanish-speaking markets.
The choice for how you respond comes down to costs and expected revenues. For many businesses, a large investment isn’t needed to offset the competitive advantage you’ll gain over your competition . Some businesses are finding success in hiring bilingual employees whenever possible. Today, job seekers are increasingly bilingual. After all, Spanish is the most studied language, other than English, in the United States, with about six million students. While a bilingual worker can usually provide acceptable conversational Spanish, an experienced and native-level speaker of Spanish should be hired to translate professional and official documents, including flyers, agreements, proposals, instruction and care guides, recorded messages, text messages, Facebook posts and website pages. These days, the price to hire a professional translation service is surprisingly low. Being proactive now will pay dividends in the future.