Wanna learn a second language? Ditch that familiar face.

Have you ever felt like you behave differently depending on your cultural surroundings? As an immigrant, I know I start mimicking others’ accents and body language once I’m out of my heritage culture. This type of environment-induced chameleon-like morphing is called – quite aptly - “frame switching” in psychology. Scientists don’t really know if it happens automatically or controlled, but the effects are quite powerful - frame switching doesn’t stop at your outwards behaviors, it also impacts how you think about a problem and subsequent judgments and decisions.

In many cases frame switching is helpful – you assimilate faster to a new environment, tailoring your thinking to that of the other people around you. For example, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma task, where a person chooses to either cooperate or defect, Chinese Americans switched strategies adaptively: when “primed” with Chinese symbols like dragons or yin-yang, they preferred to cooperate (in line with Chinese ideals of harmony); when shown pictures of superman and the Statue of Liberty, they tended to act like western economists and defect more. Culture cues are like magnets that attract and activate a network of “thinking” that we associate with a culture – this is great, since we better fit in.


If Chinese icons can lead to a “Chinese” way of thinking, could it also induce a tendency to speak Chinese? For Chinese immigrants living in Chinatown, could this then impair their ability to learn English?

Shu Zhang et al (2013). Heritage-culture images disrupt immigrants’ second-language processing through triggering first-language interference. PNAS early edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1304435110.

To test this hypothesis, researchers recruited Chinese students who’ve been attending university in the US for roughly a year and sat them down in front of a computer showing either a Caucasian or Chinese male called “Michael Lee”. Michael “spoke” to the volunteers through an audio recording in a standard American English accent. The volunteers were then asked to converse with Michael about campus life while their speech was recorded. To assess English fluency, the researchers had two separate listeners rate the recordings and they also objectively counted words produced per minute after weeding out the “uhs” and “ahhs”. Ironically, as seen below, even though volunteers preferred to chat to the Chinese version of Michael, their English fluency significantly dropped by more than 10% on average, as did their speech rate.


Fig 1. Looking at a Chinese face decreases English proficiency in Chinese Immigrants. That's quite the drop!

Fig 1. Looking at a Chinese face decreases English proficiency in Chinese Immigrants. That's quite the drop!

But maybe the volunteers felt obligated to talk to a Caucasian face in English who would otherwise not understand them. To rule out motivation as a cause of the performance gap, researchers showed volunteers five icons of Chinese (Great Wall) or American (Mount Rushmore) culture and asked them to describe the icons in English. Volunteers then had to make up a story about a culture-neutral image, also in English. Once again, English fluency and speech rate both tanked by 10-20% when describing culture-laden images (left column). Even worse, the volunteers also had a more difficult time telling an English story about the culture-neutral item when primed with pictures of the Great Wall (second left column).

Why is this happening? One possibility is that Chinese cues prime the immigrants to think in the Chinese lexicon. Instead of thinking of a pistachio as “pistachio”, for example, they might tend to name it as a “happy nut”, which is the literal translation of the nut’s Chinese name. To test this hypothesis, volunteers were again primed with culture-laden images. They were then asked to identify the literal-translation names (“happy nut”, “cotton stick”, “flying dish”) of a series of objects. Just like the researchers thought, when primed with Chinese rather than American icons, volunteers took much less time to identify those names. Showing culture-neutral images at the beginning did not affect literal-name identification at all. Finally, volunteers also tended to call objects by their literal translation name when primed with Chinese icons. Priming with American icons, on the other hand, did not help them increase their English proficiency.

This study shows just how exquisitely we are attuned to culture context, in that even seeing a symbol of a heritage culture can pull us back into our old linguistic structure and interfere with new language learning. As someone who grew up in multiple countries speaking multiple languages, I can totally relate to the feeling of frame switching and language/cultural priming. I do wish the authors included analysis of how many “extraneous” words the volunteers used, including the stutters, repetitions and self-corrections rather than ruling them out. I’d also like to do this test on Chinese-Americans who learned Chinese and English simultaneously in an American culture – would Chinese icons decrease English and/or increase Chinese proficiency?

Finally, this study suggests that the best way to learn a second language is immersion learning. If you want to assimilate, don’t move into an ethnic pocket where you’ll be surrounded by people from your homeland. You might feel more comfortable talking to them – but it won’t help your new language learning.

For all the multilinguals and multicultural people out there, have you ever noticed this cultural priming effect? Has it influenced your ability to speak a language?

Zhang S, Morris MW, Cheng CY, & Yap AJ (2013). Heritage-culture images disrupt immigrants' second-language processing through triggering first-language interference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23776218