Are you trying to learn a new language in a foreign land? You might be better off if you stopped looking at that picture of your family and friends.
When learning a new language, your brain is running a whole new neuropathway, creating new patterns and trying to fix those new pathways permanently in your gray matter. New research from Columbia University found that prompting someone who is learning a new language with images and reminders of their own culture could temporarily wreck everything that the brain was trying to build.
When native Chinese students were asked to converse with a Caucasian avatar versus a Chinese avatar, their English skills were so different. Simply exposing students to a Chinese person affected their ability to speak English. Subjects who talked with the Chinese version felt more comfortable in their speech, but they produced 11% fewer words per minute. They actually bec
ame less fluent
To make sure it wasn't just the avatar, researchers also showed people random images of China while the participants told a story. When pictures of their homeland appeared, fluency dropped 16% and volunteers were 85% more likely to use a literal translation, for example, calling pistachios "happy nuts". Because that's literally what the Chinese word for pistachio means.
The brain is constantly sucking in information and, let's be honest, it's lazy, so when the brain can do something it already knows how to do, it will. In this case the shortcut is reverting to its old patterns and neuropathways.
Culture and communication are a large part of our everyday lives, and those are well-worn pathways, so they're really difficult to alter. This effect doesn't force only on language processing either. When the students were shown pictures of fish with one swimming ahead of the others, their cultural prompt would change how they look at the photo. With Chinese prompts, like photos of the Great Wall or Chinese Dragon, etc. saw more students thinking that the fish was being chased, whereas an American prompt, like pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Superman, saw those students believing that it was a leader fish... Why are our cultural symbols Marilyn Monroe and Superman?
The bottom line is: when attempting to learn a new culture it is far better to surround yourself with that culture than create an island of the old one amidst the new one. Part of this can be seen in highly multicultural cities with isolated ethnic areas. Folks in these isolated communities would not only see less exposure for the culture and the language of the surrounding city, but they learn fluency far more slowly.