One Word, Two Schemas: Empirical Explorations of Bilinguals= Cognitive Duality

David Luna, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Laura A. Peracchio, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
[ to cite ]:
David Luna and Laura A. Peracchio (2002) ,"One Word, Two Schemas: Empirical Explorations of Bilinguals= Cognitive Duality", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 547-548.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 547-548


David Luna, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Laura A. Peracchio, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

We explore how bilingual individuals process language in advertising. We present a psycholinguistic model, the Conceptual Feature Model (CFM; de Groot 1992), that describes how bilingual individuals map words to their meanings in memory. We then extend this model to an advertising context and present the results of a study that tests the CFM and shows that language-specific schemas exist in the minds of bilingual individuals. That is, words may activate different meanings or cognitive schemas depending on the language in which they are presented. The marketing implications of this "cognitive duality" phenomenon are further explored in study 2.

The Hispanic market is becoming one of the most important U.S. demographic segments. Marketers are accordingly increasing their efforts to target this lucrative market (Jensen 1998). Hence, spending for advertising directed to the Hispanic market grew to $1.7 billion in 1998, up 21% from 1997 (Zbar 1999). In some situations, the same ads used on the Anglo population are used to target Hispanics, but in many cases ads are adapted to the Hispanic market (e.g., translated into Spanish), or whole campaigns are designed specifically for this segment. For example, an advertisement for AFLAC insurance that recently appeared in Hispanic magazine read: "Twenty million hijas are covered by AFLAC. Is yours?" In Spanish, the word "hija" means "daughter." In this case, the advertiser believes that "hija" might elicit a stronger emotional reaction than "daughter" among a Latino audience. This paper takes a close look at that presumption. In particular, we examine whether the language in which a word is written influences the thoughts that come to consumers’ minds. Additionally, we address the implications of switching languages within a message as in the AFLAC ad.

We utilize a theory-based approach to examine those issues. First, we summarize a psycholinguistic model of how bilingual individuals store and process information, the Conceptual Feature Model (CFM). The CFM (de Groot 1992) describes how a word in one language may be linked to a set of concepts which could be different from the concepts linked to its translation equivalent word in a second language. From this model, we infer that bilingual consumers may possess a cognitive duality, in which the same word or message may be connected to different cognitive structures depending on the language in which it is presented.

We conduct two empirical studies to both validate the CFM’s claims and to extend it to ad slogan processing. Study 1 uses a free elicitation methodology to uncover the cognitive duality of bilingual individuals. We present participants with several nouns and then evaluate the nature of the elicited associations. Study 2 presents participants with the same nouns embedded into advertising slogans to study their evaluations, thoughts and memory for the slogans. Our results find evidence of the relevance of the CFM for advertisers targeting bilingual populations. We find support for our theorizing that the imperfect conceptual overlap between translation-equivalent words results in a cognitive duality in bilinguals’ minds. Bilingual individuals seem to possess parallel cognitive structures that can be alternatively activated depending on the language they are processing at any particular time.

Complementing existing sociolinguistic theory (Gudykunst 1988), these results suggest that language is used by bilingual individuals as a cultural and/or emotional cue. The schemas corresponding to culturally stereotypical norms may be activated by a word in Spanish (English), but not by the same word in English (Spanish). Together, both studies reveal that specific meanings or associations are attached to a word in English (Spanish) but not to its translation equivalent in Spanish (English). These results support the notion of the cognitive duality of bilingual individuals.

These research findings have important implications for advertisers, who could use bilingual ads or statements to elicit the most desirable associations for their product. As study 2 suggests, however, advertisers must be careful using mixed-language (or code-switched) messages. For example, for advertisers using mixed-language ads like AFLAC’s, ad content memory and product evaluations could be diminished because of the use of code switching. Also, in particular, switching from English to Spanish in an ad seems to create negative feelings as subjects indicated they felt that the marketers were "talking down" to them through the use of "Spanglish."

This research suggests several avenues for future investigation of language processing effects. Our data suggest that the language in which a message is presented has an impact on the meaning drawn from the message. Our findings uncover these language effects for both single word stimuli and for ad slogans. Future studies can explore whether these cognitive duality findings extend to ad appeals that employ both visual and verbal elements. It may be that the visual components of an ad undermine the language processing effects reported in this research as they create an equivalence across ads that negates the impact of the cognitive duality effects. Alternatively, the cognitive duality effect may be sustained when processing an ad with both visual and verbal components, as the visual image may reinforce the language-specific notions presented in the verbal ad copy.

In summary, this paper offers preliminary evidence regarding the cognitive duality of the bilingual mind and its implications for advertisers. Very little research has been conducted to understand how bilingual consumers process information. This is surprising given that demographic trends indicate that bilingual populations are increasingly important around the world. As the present research shows, bilinguals possess unique information processing mechanisms. Much work remains to be done to understand bilingual cognitive processing of advertising. Future research must now examine cognitive duality in depth, test its robustness across different contexts, and apply it more directly to ad copy testing.


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