When In Rome, Don’t Phone Home

New research confirms that cultural immersion is the best way to learn a language, since influences from home tend to slow down development:

[T]he researchers examined particular objects with names that can be tricky to translate from Chinese to English. The Chinese word for pistachio, for example, translates literally as “happy nut,” while the word for lollipop translates as “stick candy,” and the researchers wanted to see how prone to using these sorts of original Chinese linguistic structure the students would be under various conditions. … The researchers showed photos of these sorts of objects to 85 Chinese-speaking students who’d only been in the country for about 3 months. Some students saw familiar images from Chinese culture, while others saw American or neutral images. All groups demonstrated the same level of accuracy in describing objects like pistachios, but they proved to be much more likely to make incorrect overly literal translations (calling pistachios, for example, “happy nuts”) when shown Chinese imagery first than with either of the other two categories.

The researchers explain the results as an example of “frame-switching.” In essence, for the native Chinese speakers still learning English as a second language, being exposed to faces or images that they associated with China unconsciously primed them to think in a Chinese frame of reference. As a result, it took more effort to speak English—causing them to speak more slowly—and perhaps made them more likely to “think in” Chinese too, using literal Chinese linguistic structures instead of translating into the correct English words.