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.
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