The language abilities of people from multicultural backgrounds who speak more than one language are affected by visual signals, new research has discovered.

According to the study, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), if a person is shown images they associate with their native culture; it will affect their ability to speak their second language. Not only can the speed with which they speak be impacted, but also the words they choose.

Scientific American reports that the researchers worked with students who had moved to the US from China. They were put in groups and one was shown a picture of a Caucasian face, while the other saw an image of a Chinese face. While looking at these images, both groups were played a recording of a conversation in English about university life.

Once the recording was finished, the students were asked to speak in English about their own lives and experiences. Researchers found that those who had looked at an image of a Chinese face spoke English a little more slowly afterwards. This group’s language skills were also less fluent than the group who saw the Caucasian face – although this effect was not permanent.

Another test saw the students being given Chinese icons to look at. When they had seen these, their Chinese to English translations tended to be more literal. For instance, if they saw a pistachio nut and were asked to say what it was they would call it a “happy nut”, which is its name in China.

Cultural influences on language

Scientific American’s Cynthia Graber says of the Shu Zhang et al study that it demonstrates there are numerous unexpected challenges to be encountered by immigrants who relocate and immerse themselves in a new language. It is also yet more evidence that far more elements have an impact on our language centres than we might expect – and that language itself affects everything around us.

In May, a group from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that, as well as visual distractions, noise can also prevent spoken information from reaching the brain, meaning the language centre uses a proofreading-like system to make sense of it. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that when the information a person receives is confusing, the brain will use an editing process to make sense of it.

We have written before about studies that demonstrate how the language we speak can influence our assignation of blame. It can even influence what colours we see. Our perception of time is also effected by our language. For instance, the way we write can impact how we visualise the concept of time. People who write from the top of the page to the bottom might signify the past by pointing up and the future by pointing down. With scripts written from left to right like English, indicating to the left is a way of visualising the past and to the right symbolises the future.

When learning a new language, there is so much that affects our rate of learning. That’s why many people claim the best way to learn a language quickly is to do so in the country where it is the mother tongue as it allows you to be completely immersed in it.

Language Insight understands that culture and surroundings are just as important as language skills when it comes to communication. That’s why our translations are produced by a person who speaks your target language as their mother tongue, and who is based in the country where that dialect is spoken.

This is part of a process called localisation. As the PNAS study shows, the cultural influences of a person’s mother tongue can impact on their second language skills, which means that when they produce a translation it may not read entirely naturally to a person whose mother tongue is the language the text is written in.

Yet these cultural influences also improve a translation. When someone is translating into their mother tongue they can use them to ensure the completed text resonates in the right way with the reader. If there are words in the original that have no direct translation, the translator will know the best term in their mother tongue to substitute for it. They will understand the local dialects, slang, idioms and other cultural influences that best reflect the voice of the reader.

Nuts about translation

Taking an example from the PNAS study, a Chinese native may inadvertently write ‘happy nut’ rather than ‘pistachio’ in a translation. However, if they were translating from English into Chinese they would know the correct way to translate ‘pistachio’, where a native English speaker whose second language is Chinese might not.

When getting something translated, the two most important objectives are to make it sound natural in the target language and to retain the message of the original text. This is achieved by localization; by assigning the work to a translator whose mother tongue is your target language. By selecting Language Insight’s translation services, this is exactly what you can expect.

And for those wondering why the pistachio is such a happy nut, it could be because of the way the shell cracks open to reveal the nut inside. It looks just like a wide, happy smile!