Foreign Languages

While I was in Sweden there was an active advertising campaign whose tagline was some variant of “Would you sell your mother?” and a link to sellyourmother.se. This seemed to be a sort of “mystery campaign”, where the company doing the advertising doesn’t identify itself, and instead directs the viewer to a website for more information. The tactic is common enough in the US, too. The “Now What?” TV ads last year, showing humorous incidents of expensive damage to property, are a recent example (they turned out to be placed by an insurance company).

The “Sell Your Mother” ads are not too secretive about their true identity; they are advertising Sprite, indicating that it is so desirable that one might potentially sell one’s mother in order to obtain it. This is not what I would call an inspired ad campaign, and in a way that’s what’s interesting about it.

Virtually everyone in Sweden seems to speak at least some English, and in Stockholm the majority speak it quite well. Nonetheless, the language of the city is Swedish, and the Sprite advertisements stand out for being written in English. I imagine the decision to advertise in English is attributable in part to the perception of Sprite as an American brand, but I think there’ s something subtler going on. By advertising in English, Sprite exploits what I’ll call the Second Language Effect.

What I’m trying to describe is a common pattern: people often have a dramatically lower standard for artistry in a second language. This applies to music, theater, poetry, literature … and advertising. My best example is myself. My second language is Spanish, and I am a total aficionado of Spanish-language music, film, and literature (e.g. Orishas, Pedro Almodóvar, Jorge Luis Borges). I might even say that I like them, respectively, better than Fifty Cent, Steven Soderbergh, and Edgar Allen Poe. Would I like them as much if they were working from within my culture, in my language? I suspect not. If I could better comprehend the nuance of the words, maybe I would find them poorly chosen. If I were more familiar with the language and culture, I might find cliché instead of novelty. If I weren’t spending all effort on translation, maybe I would be more apt to notice plot holes or inadequate delivery. The list of possible mechanisms is very long.

I suspect a similar effect operates in Sweden, and Europe generally, with regard to English. The tendency is most famously expressed in Euro-dance songs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their awful English lyrics. Off the top of my head, I can think of “Ra Ra Rasputin” and all of ABBA. Then again, those songs also achieved huge popularity among native English speakers. That, I cannot explain. Maybe it’s something about the round trip, a double second language effect. See also: Shakira.

There’s another piece of the Second Language Effect, though, which I find even more intriguing. People are much less likely to be offended in a foreign language. They are able to discuss subjects (like selling one’s mother) which are distinctly off-putting in the native tongue. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, writes about Korean airline pilots who, hamstrung by a culture of hierarchical address, switch to English (a second language) because it allows them to communicate bluntly without fear of offense. There are topics that one can only comfortably discuss in a second language.

I wonder whether a common second language can be a mechanism for positive social change, simply because it enables people to make good use of the Second Language Effect.

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