It’s easier talking to your customers if you speak their language. With millions of speakers of minority languages around the world, food processors and retailers need to be able to communicate with their customers. Chris Lyddon reports.

The range of European minority languages extends from Abaza, spoken in parts of Russia, Germany and Turkey, to Zuberera, a Basque dialect. What constitutes a minority language depends where you are. Spanish is a minority language in the US, but in Spain it’s the dominant language, with Basque, Catalan and other minority languages in that country’s regions. Russian is spoken by many millions, but it is the language of a minority in Estonia. German claims more native speakers in Europe than any other language, but it is a minority tongue in Hungary and Belgium among other places.

In many areas minority language speakers almost all speak the dominant language as well, but language is a question of identity as well as a means of communication.

Forty million US Spanish speakers

Just because a language carries the label ‘minority’, that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. In the largely English speaking United States the chief minority language is Spanish. According to Jose Cancela, whose consulting firm, Hispanic USA Inc., works with companies who want to get it right when they deal with Spanish speakers, of some 40 million people with a Hispanic background in the US, roughly half use the Spanish language from day to day and operate in an environment in which Spanish is the main mode of communication. “Their world revolves around speaking Spanish,” he told just-food.

Generally the food industry does well in dealing with them. “The Proctor and Gambles and Wal-Marts have done a fantastic job with Spanish,” he said. “They hire professionals to lead them the right way.”

But it is also possible to get it very wrong, he said. One example is a new line of Hershey’s confectionery launched under the name “La Dulceria Thaila.”  Thalia is a well known Mexican star, described as the Hispanic equivalent of Britney Spears.

In one advertisement, Thalia appears in “People en Espanol” magazine with the slogan, “Sabor a chocolate blanco con cajeta.” (The taste of white chocolate and condensed milk.)

To the 60% of the US Hispanic market that have Mexican roots, the word “cajeta”, loosely translated, means condensed milk, he said. But to the rest of the Hispanic consumers in the United States it means nothing, or what Jose Cancela coyly calls “something that does not belong on a candy wrapper”.

“Why would you invest all that money in national media to do something that could offend people?” he said. He pointed out that Haagen Dazs rolled out the same flavour under the title ‘Dulce de Leche’. Because that product has been around for a few years most English speaking Americans would have an idea what it is.

US supermarket Wal-Mart makes sure that Spanish speakers are catered for, spokesman Bill Wirtz told just-food. “We have Spanish lane signage in stores in predominantly Spanish speaking areas,” he said. “Labels on merchandise are more a function of the producer of that merchandise. When we have a lot of Spanish speakers we do tend to have more products geared towards Hispanic lifestyles.” However, suppliers of, for example, Mexican brands would often prefer their product to be put with its competition, rather than in a Mexican aisle so as to sell to all groups.

US$686-per-year market

Tapping into the US Hispanic market can be highly lucrative. When Smithfield Food subsidiary Patrick Cudahy bought 814 Americas Inc from Spanish food company Campofrio Alimentacion in March it said it was gaining access to a market worth more than US$686m a year and growing fast. 814 Americas which produces chorizo, traditional Dominican and other Caribbean salamis, sausage and other prepared meat specialties, had been ranked as the “Most Recognized Line” by the US Association of Latin American Consumers, it said. “Now, with Hispanic and Caribbean menu items becoming increasingly mainstream, the demand for these specialty sausage products is growing even more aggressively in both retail and foodservice venues,” it said.

“By 2009, Hispanics will make up 9% of US purchasing power. This is a market we want to continue to build on with a diverse line of quality products that meet the needs of today’s Hispanic consumer,” said Bill Otis, president and chief operating officer of Patrick Cudahy.

Minority languages in the UK

Britain may be home to the world’s dominant language English, but the UK has its own share of minority languages. Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Welsh are all spoken in parts of the UK, as well as a plethora of non-indigenous languages.

Britain’s biggest minority language is Welsh, with anything up to a million speakers. But there are few signs of food retailers arriving at a definite policy to deal with the language, Dafydd Lewis of the Welsh language society Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg told just-food. The society has been pressing fastfood chains to come up with a policy. They have talked to Burger King, but as yet there has been no response from McDonald’s or KFC, he said.

Welsh language policy can create tensions. Two years ago two of the society’s members were arrested during protests at a branch of Burger King. More recently the society has worked with Burger King franchisees to achieve a bilingual policy. “Burger King don’t have any company owned restaurants in Wales,” Burger King spokeswoman Vicky Squires told just-food. “They’re all franchisee owned so Burger King’s policy would be that it’s at the discretion of the individual franchisee as to what they do.”

Supermarket policy on Welsh was often down to chance, said Dafydd Lewis. With locally hired staff they often do have bilingual people working in stores, but it does not mean they have a coherent policy. The lack of a policy on the language in private business was in stark contrast to government bodies, constrained by the law to work in two languages.

One supermarket which prides itself on working in local languages is Wal-Mart’s Asda. It has converted signage and slogans into Welsh and Cornish. In February this year it announced it was going further with signage in Peterhead, in the north of Scotland in Doric, a dialect of English spoken in the area. Staff in a new store there “wid aye gie ya a han”, according to Asda, which says it means they are always there to help. The Doric signage extends to “loons” and “quines” marked on toilet doors.