Rising Stars: Meet Michelle Michimani Leyva

For several years, we have featured linguists with established careers and interesting stories to tell. This year, we will also be highlighting “Rising Stars” throughout our Fund Drive, undergraduates who were nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Selected nominees were asked to share their view of the field of linguistics: what topics they see emerging as important or especially interesting, what role they see the field filling in the coming decades, and how they plan to contribute. We hope you will enjoy the perspectives of these students, who represent the bright future of our field.

Today, we are happy to share the thoughts of Michelle Michimani Leyva, a senior at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. She is majoring in both English-Communication Arts and Spanish, and is especially interested in applying her knowledge of lexicology to advertising and reaching minority Spanish-speaking populations. You can learn more about her research on her portfolio.


Michelle Michimani Leyva

The role of language in cultural identity is often overlooked. However, acknowledging the connections between cultural and linguistic identities contributes to a fuller understanding of societies. Deepening our understanding of linguistics helps prevent miscommunication between dialects, fosters a sense of belonging through common linguistic features, and counteracts stigmas associated with variations between dialects. Knowledge of linguistic identities helps us understand communities and individuals better and helps us accept and cherish our unique linguistic attributes.

As an advertiser and linguist, I hope that the intersection of these fields emerges as a “hot topic.” Linguistics has been explored in media, but its application to advertising specifically has not been explored in as much depth. Advertising is about communicating, whether it is through art or through its copy; but if advertisement’s main point is to create a customized ad specific to a target audience, why is copy language so generalized? I am personally interested in the topic of using Spanish dialects in copy since Spanish has a vast lexical bank throughout its many dialects. During my internship as media planner at Wavemaker (formally known as MEC) in New York City, I was able to see the advertising industry’s push for placing the right advertisement in front of the right person. However, there seems to be an oversight on the affect linguistics has on an advertisements’ performance. For example, in 2004 Hershey partnered with Thalia Sodi to create a “Hispanic inspired” candy line. The new candy bar was called “Cajeta Elegancita.” “Cajeta” in Mexico is defined as a caramel sauce made of goat’s milk, but in Argentina, “cajeta” is a slang term used to describe a part of the female anatomy. Linguistic knowledge helps optimize creative advertising and branding, and it helps advertisers craft ads that resonate with various audiences. Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity.” Being able to portray various linguistic identities in advertising would help remediate the issues of non-representation and misrepresentation of minorities in advertising.

This year, I finished my research study, Lexical Variation in Spanish Speakers, and presented it at the Third International Conference on Heritage/Community Languages in the University of California, Los Angeles. My research surveyed the lexical bank of Spanish speakers in the United States and compared the results to the lexical bank provided in five 1st and 2nd year Spanish textbooks for college students. The results of my research indicated that Spanish heritage speakers lexical bank varied significantly from standard Spanish. My conclusion focused on the lexical variety in Spanish speakers and the stigmas among variations that are not the norma culta or standard Spanish.

While I work in the advertising field, I hope to contribute to linguistics research by completing an extension of my study. In this future research, I would like to examine lexical variation in Spanish speakers and its application to Spanish advertising. Through my research and my work, I hope to create awareness of the importance of linguistics features that makes language so unique. Eventually I would like to attend graduate school for linguistics and dream of creating my own multi-cultural advertising agency that embodies linguistics in advertising in order to represent the beautiful diversity in language.


If you have a student who you believe is a “Rising Star” in linguistics, we would love to hear about them! We are still accepting nominations for exceptional young linguists. Please see the call for nominations for more information.

If you have not yet–please visit our Fund Drive page to learn more about us and why we need your help! The LINGUIST List relies on your generous donations to continue it support of linguists around the world.

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