Something odd happened when Shu Zhang was giving a presentation to her classmates at the Columbia Business School in New York City. Zhang, a Chinese native, spoke fluent English, yet in the middle of her talk, she glanced over at her Chinese professor and suddenly blurted out a word in Mandarin. "I meant to say a transition word like 'however,' but used the Chinese version instead," she says. "It really shocked me."
Shortly afterward, Zhang teamed up with Columbia social psychologist Michael Morris and colleagues to figure out what had happened. In a new study, they show that reminders of one's homeland can hinder the ability to speak a new language. The findings could help explain why cultural immersion is the most effective way to learn a foreign tongue and why immigrants who settle within an ethnic enclave acculturate more slowly than those who surround themselves with friends from their new country.
Previous studies have shown that cultural icons such as landmarks and celebrities act like "magnets of meaning," instantly activating a web of cultural associations in the mind and influencing our judgments and behavior, Morris says. In an earlier study, for example, he asked Chinese Americans to explain what was happening in a photograph of several fish, in which one fish swam slightly ahead of the others. Subjects first shown Chinese symbols, such as the Great Wall or a dragon, interpreted the fish as being chased. But individuals primed with American images of Marilyn Monroe or Superman, in contrast, tended to interpret the outlying fish as leading the others. This internally driven motivation is more typical of individualistic American values, some social psychologists say, whereas the more externally driven explanation of being pursued is more typical of Chinese culture.
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