To Vote or not to Vote

The importance of language is not something new to language professionals and other professionals working in the language industry. Governments all over the world are now aware of its importance and are adapting their policies to be able to provide public services to the 230 million people who left their home country last year according to the World Migration Report 2013. Language is slowly making its way up on companies’ priority lists and can no longer be considered an afterthought, but a primary concern at the decision-making stage. It is only a matter of time before it reaches the position it deserves in this new multicultural reality that some call the “Global Village”.

But language is not only present where there is communication or interaction. The past decade has seen a host of studies and demonstrations showing that language plays a causal role in shaping cognition. In other words, languages change how people think. Teaching people new color words changes their ability to discriminate colors, teaching people new ways of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it, etc. Different languages can even make it easier or harder to remember who did something if it was an accident. For example: say John broke a vase by accident. In Spanish it would not sound strange to say: “se rompió el florero” – “the vase broke itself”. But in English, non-agentive language sounds elusive, and it is more common to say who did it, even if it was an accident.

This new central position of language, together with its overlooked role in shaping the way people think, will bring great responsibility to those who are building the bridges between continents, markets and cultures.

An interesting example of this responsibility can be seen in the 2014 European Elections campaign by the European Parliament. The financial crisis and the cutbacks across Europe have undermined the trust of hundreds of thousands of Europeans who will not be voting next Sunday, May 25th. This campaign is an attempt to raise awareness among Europeans on the importance of voting, with slogans such as: “Choose who is in charge”, “Get inspired, become a voter”, etc.
Words are the central element of a video ad, where a bolded font emphasizes the words of the voice actor, who clearly states: “vote from May the 22nd to May the 25th”.


But surprisingly, out of the 24 languages that this campaign has been translated to, Spanish is the only one where the word “vote” is never used as an imperative. Instead, the phrasing is moved around to allow room for the more flexible: “tú puedes decidir quién dirige europa en las elecciones europeas del 25 de mayo” (“you can decide who is in charge through the European elections of May the 25th”). And the slogans ignore the word “vote” completely: “la importancia para los ciudadanos de las elecciones europeas” (“the importance of the European elections for citizens”), “razones para decidir” (“reasons to choose”).


Polls show that 6 out of 10 Spanish citizens are not planning on voting next Sunday; and two weeks ago, almost three quarters of the population did not know there were European elections this year (let alone the date). That is why it is shocking to see a campaign that is so permissive with abstention in Spanish. It has been proven that language influences the way we think, but the influence also goes the other way. So we will have to be more and more careful as the power of the language industry increases and it becomes the intersection of many different interests and expectations.