Cultural Images Affect Second Language Usage

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Ordinarily, you’d call a pistachio a pistachio. But if you’re, for example, an immigrant from China and you’ve just seen a Ming vase, you might call a pistachio a “happy nut.” Because visual cues can affect language in people with multiple cultural experiences. That’s according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Shu Zhang et al, Heritage-culture images disrupt immigrants’ second-language processing through triggering first-language interference]

Researchers performed various tests with students who had come to the U.S. from China. In one, the students heard a recorded conversation, in English, about campus life. But some looked at a Chinese face while they listened, while others saw a Caucasian face.

The students then spoke about their own lives. And the Chinese-American students who had listened while looking at a Chinese face spoke English more slowly and less fluently than those who listened while looking at the Caucasian face.

In another test, when the students were exposed to Chinese icons, they were more likely to translate from Chinese into English literally. Thus, pistachios became “happy nuts,” which is the name in China.

This phenomenon demonstrates that immigrants struggling with a new language can face unusual and unanticipated challenges. And that what you see can affect what you say.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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