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August 30, 2013 | Research Feature

Language Lessons

How cultural images from home can impair second-language skills.


A recently transferred employee from Shanghai nails his pitch to Mr. Smith in Chicago, but stumbles when talking to Mr. Chen from San Francisco. A visiting professor from Taiwan lectures fluently when showing a slide of a Grecian urn, but struggles to recall the word “translucent” when discussing a Ming vase. Why would seeing a Chinese face or even a Chinese vase disrupt a Chinese immigrant’s fluency in English?

New research by Professor Michael Morris explores the process through which reminders of one’s home culture can interfere with speaking a second language.

In recent years, the study of how cultural knowledge operates in the mind has focused on the dynamics through which culturally conferred cognitive structures become activated in particular situations. One of these dynamics is frame-switching, or the shifts in judgment that bicultural individuals make as they move between different cultural settings. A new immigrant may speak Chinese and interact according to Chinese norms at home, for example, but speak English and adopt Western mannerisms when in school.

This latest research builds on a decade of Morris’ work documenting that frame-switching occurs through an unconscious mental process called priming. Morris, working with postdoctoral research scholar Shu Zhang and former students Chi-Ying Cheng of Singapore Management University and Andy Yap of MIT, conducted a series of four experiments that showed frame-switching is an automatic process and therefore sometimes disrupts — rather than helps — performance in a second language. Second-language fluency is difficult because first-language structures in one’s mind can interfere with the second-language structures, Morris explains. In their first experiment, which simulated a conference call, they found that Chinese immigrants spoke English less fluently when speaking to a Chinese face (a photograph), compared with a Caucasian face. The second found the same effect from exposure to images of Chinese culture such as a Buddha statue or the Great Wall of China, compared with images of American culture such as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore. Both studies used an objective measure of fluency — words spoken per minute — as well as the subjective assessment of two judges who evaluated the recordings.

The third and fourth studies focused on investigating how cultural primes — iconic images that trigger cultural associations — can activate Chinese-language cognitive structures that interfere with English-language processing. One study showed that Chinese immigrants who were exposed to visual icons of Chinese culture were more likely to name pictured objects with literal translations from Chinese, such as calling pistachios “happy nuts” or calling a bulldozer an “earth-moving machine.” The other showed that after being primed with Chinese cultural images, immigrants were quicker to recognize these anomalous literal-translation phrases, an indication that these lexical structures had been cognitively activated.

Although this set of studies focused on language, biculturals become fluent not just linguistically but also socially — knowing a second culture’s norms for when to make eye contact and what emotions to express in what situations. Biculturals switch scripts, adjusting their social style, from one setting to another, in response to cultural cues. “Our cultural scripts are triggered automatically by cues to the cultural expectations of a setting — sights, sounds, foods, even aromas that are evocative of a particular cultural identity,” Morris says. “But in culturally complex communities, this chameleon-like response doesn’t always serve us well. In many social settings in New York, for example, an immigrant would encounter Chinese faces or Chinese images even though it’s a situation governed by American cultural norms rather than Chinese norms. Automatic responses to culturally associated stimuli would interfere with the person’s efforts to adhere to American norms.”

Cultural cues that induce East Asian immigrants to speak English less fluently and behave less “Western” could hinder their hiring and promotion. For example, a manager interviewing a candidate from Japan might think that meeting at a Japanese restaurant would make the visitor more comfortable, but the setting may set up their visitor for a clash of activated cultural scripts. “This is something that happens in many organizations that receive international visitors or employees,” Morris says. “Someone will say, ‘the team from Tokyo is here, let’s take them to the sushi place around the corner.’ In reality, this may make it harder for the visitors to speak English fluently during dinner, because their Japanese language schemas will get activated by the Japanese cultural cues.” Better options? Suggest a traditional American steakhouse or the neutral ground of another culture’s cuisine.

Michael Morris is the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Zhang, Shue, Michael Morris, Chi-Ying Cheng, and Andy Yap.
“Heritage-Culture Images Disrupt Immigrants’ Second-Language Processing Through Triggering First-Language Interference.” Proceeding of the National Academy of Science, 110, no. 28 (2013): 11272–11277.

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