Dive In

This is interesting — researchers have suggested that seeing familiar images from your native country and/or culture can inhibit your ability to learn a new language.  Or to quote SCIENCE!:

“That’s because, as new research shows, merely seeing faces and images that you associate with home could make speaking in a foreign tongue more difficult. In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Columbia University and Singapore Management University found that for Chinese students who’d recently moved to the U.S., seeing several different types of China-related visual cues measurably reduced their fluency in English.

In the first part of the study, the researchers tested 42 students’ English speaking ability under two different circumstances—while looking at a computer screen, they either spoke with an image of a Caucasian face or a Chinese one. In both cases, they heard the exact same prerecorded passage (about the experience of living on a college campus) and responded with their own thoughts in English.”

So the basic idea is that if you see images that you’re familiar with (in this case, racially similar faces) you’re more likely to “frame-switch” back to your native tongue.  So even if you speak in the second language you’re basically thinking in your first, and this limits you.

From my own experience studying Korean these days and, in past lives, Spanish, French, and Japanese, it’s scary to really cut loose and try to speak a second language as fluidly and confidently as possible.  The moment I sense an “out” so to speak, of being able to switch back to English I’ll take it, even though I know I shouldn’t.

I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I try and use “Koreanized” English vocabulary in my weekly class to bullshit my way past the teacher during conversation time.  The crazy thing though is that it works more often than it should, given the saturation of Western media in South Korea.  (I learned it from you, Japanese.)

Anyhow, if the scientists are on to something here it’s basically a reinforcement of the long-standing notion that immersion is still the best way to learn a new language even if it does tend to terrorize my college students on that first day when they realize their textbook is completely in English.

This entry was posted in English, ESL, Language, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dive In

  1. Kokoba says:

    Idk, I think immersion is important essential after a certain level of fluency has been attained, but NOT as a crash beginner’s course. Otherwise you’re wasting a lot of time reinventing the wheel. Living in Korea certainly helped my intonation and accent (even if they’e still awful), but I LEARNED from textbooks and lessons that were in English.

    Crazy shit about the brain, though. Did you read “The Geography of Thought”? Not expressly about language learning but this post brought the book to mind:


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