07 Jul Training across the Language Barrier: Financial Literacy Resources in Spanish

by Sharon Cabeen, TG Director of Financial Literacy Operations

Taken as a group, Americans are less financially literate than one might hope. Economist Annamaria Lusardi’s research consistently shows that fewer than half of American adults can correctly answer basic financial questions such as:

Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow: more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?

This problem is even more acute for some specific populations. Lusardi writes, “Women, African Americans, Hispanics, and individuals with low educational opportunities continue to display very poor levels of financial literacy — much lower than their counterparts — at middle age, before retirement, and into retirement.” Unsurprisingly, people with a poor understanding of financial concepts are at financial risk.

For a large number of people, there is an additional obstacle to overcome: a language barrier. Consider: According to a 2012 study published by the U.S. Census, 38.3 million people (approximately 13% of the population more than five years old), speak Spanish at home. An American council of Education report notes that for U.S.-born Hispanic households, only 39 percent use English as the primary language at home. Further, a 2010 poll sponsored by The Nielson Company and Stanford University found that only 20% of mainly Spanish-speaking parents were able to communicate “extremely well” with their child’s school.

Let’s review just that much: (1) fewer than half of Americans understand basic financial concepts (like compound interest), (2) minority groups have even lower levels of financial literacy, and (3) for many people in Hispanic households, a language barrier makes it difficult to improve this dire situation.

Given this situation, it’s good to know that some efforts have been made to make financial literacy resources available in Spanish. For example, MyMoney.gov (a government website with financial education resources) is available in Spanish. The office of Federal Student Aid provides online tools at its website, including a Spanish-language version.

Get the conversation started

Javier Salinas, a financial literacy consultant with TG, supports bilingual financial literacy training that also includes the parents. These types of efforts are, he points out good conversation starters. In fact, he states, “The student is often just as familiar with English as with Spanish, but the parent is not. The Spanish-language version brings the parent into the conversation. As educators, we want to respect the investment that parents are making in their children. Maybe they’re leaving work early to attend a session. Maybe they had to arrange childcare for their other children. There are a lot of competing priorities. Perhaps they’re managing care for an elderly parent. But there they are.”

In many cases, he noted, this may be the first opportunity the parents and the student have had to discuss finances in an educational context. “They’ve gone to some trouble to arrange their day so that they can be there. Having the material available in the language they understand is a good thing. It’s important.”

Focus on engagement

“I was recently at a financial literacy conference, and most of the products available teach the same basic things,” Salinas noted. “There aren’t huge differences between what any two financial counselors will say about how to manage credit, for example. What’s different is how the material is delivered. We believe in delivering material in small, easy-to-understand chunks. We want there to be an activity that’s engaging. Bilingual education training matches that philosophy we support, of teaching in a way that helps people really get it.”

For example, Salinas points out, “In translating content, it’s important to be sensitive to regional differences in vocabulary. Saying something a certain way might resonate differently in one region versus another.”

Adapt to your audience

Salinas noted that for many parents in South Texas, language is not the only barrier. Many may be under-banked. Many may not have received much education themselves. In that context, breaking out a spreadsheet and force-marching a captive audience through a sample budget wouldn’t do much good.

He stated: “For a lot of these families, especially for first-generation college attendees, there’s not just a language issue. The concepts are new in many cases. If we can give people access to information and also introduce them to ideas they can benefit from, that’s a big win for all concerned.

“When I presented this material in Spanish, it was well received. The parents appreciated very much that this was there for them. And the students, even though they may have already heard this content in English, would often choose to attend with their parents. So that was excellent, because now they’re hearing it together, and the conversation is underway.”

Financial literacy as a must-have rather than a nice-to-have

Lusardi, who has become a well-known advocate for financial literacy education generally, argues that this type of education is “a basic but essential skill for living in the 21st century. It is what reading and writing was for previous generations; somebody who could not read and write could not fully participate in society, just as today, somebody who is not financially literate cannot fully participate in the modern economy.”

Fortunately, for some segments of the population with the greatest need, there is increased access to financial literacy training.