Second language learners recall native language when reading

June 1, 2010

( -- Adults fluent in English whose first language is Chinese retrieve their native language when reading in English, according to new research in the June 2 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. This study suggests that people who learn a second language in adolescence or later recall the sounds of words from their native language.

The scientists who conducted the study, Yan Jing Wu, PhD, and Guillaume Thierry, PhD, of Bangor University in the United Kingdom, said their work helps researchers understand how the brain manages symbols and sounds in different languages. Thierry explained that although most bilingual people believe they function solely in one at any given time, these findings show that it is not necessarily the case.

"Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it's not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to words," Thierry said.

To learn how two languages interact in a bilingual mind, the authors asked 90 volunteers — 30 native Chinese speakers, 30 native English speakers, and 30 Chinese-English bilingual adults who learned English after age 12 — to perform a reading and a listening test. The English-speaking volunteers had to decide whether pairs of English words had similar meanings, such as "doctor" and "nurse" or "teacher" and "rabbit." The authors recorded brain activity from placed on participants' scalps to monitor how their brains responded.

What the authors didn't tell volunteers was that some English words had the same sounds or similar spelling when translated into Chinese. The results showed the bilingual adults responded to words with related meaning as quickly as native English speakers. However, when English words translated into Chinese had similar sounds and were presented to the bilingual volunteers, a specific wave of called the N400 changed. This suggests that the Chinese language words were being accessed. For example, the unrelated English word pair "experience" and "surprise" translates to "jing yan" and "jing ya."

Michael Chee, MBBS, of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, who was unaffiliated with the study, said the findings show that even though people who learn a second language later in life are discouraged from directly translating words from their , they may be doing so anyway.

"One limitation of the study is that many older generation English learners from China learned English by memorizing lists of words in what seems like a brute force method of learning," Chee said. "It would be interesting to see if the same results would be obtained if persons learning English earlier were studied."

More information:

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Advances in imaging could deepen knowledge of brain

February 18, 2017

New imaging techniques enable exploration of the brain in much more detail than ever before, opening the door to greater understanding of neurological problems and possibly new treatments, researchers say.

What the ability to 'get the gist' says about your brain

February 17, 2017

Many who have a chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI) report struggling to solve problems, understand complex information and maintain friendships, despite scoring normally on cognitive tests. New research from the Center ...

Emotions are cognitive, not innate, researchers conclude

February 15, 2017

Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information, New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown, a professor at the City ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
I've often wondered how one goes about having an internal monologue without language. If you were isolated on an island as a child and never learned a language, how would thought be different for you? I know that when I think, I speak to myself mentally in English. Sorry, a bit off topic and kind of a stupid thought, just thought I'd share it.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2010
I think I heard somewhere that when people migrate to another country with another language, in time their 'inner language' can change to match the one that is used there so that people report that they begin to seeing even dreams with that new language.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
I would think it is interchangeable.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
Acquiring a new language is like expanding the vocabulary of your native language. When you hear a word which sounds similar to another word, your associations depend as well on the sound as on the context, but not on the language.
When I read PhysOrg articles, my inner language turns English due to the context. Sometimes in the English sentences which are floating through my brain there are gaps filled with words from other languages and I have to resort to dictionaries.
But I don't think this to be characteristic for using a second language. The same gap-filling "operation" happens whenever one replaces a word with another one of the same language because it deems more suitable.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
I agree wih Frajo.

English isn't my first language but since I live in the UK and always only use English, and very rarely my native language I don't think in my native language. Except if I watch a film or read something in my first language then it switches but also only partially. I still think other bits in English, it really depends on the context.
Personally I don't think of/recall my native language at all when speaking/thinking/reading English.
I almost exclusively dream in English but that's cause I'm exposed to it all the time. If I'm back home a lot I'll probably start dreaming in my 'first' language again.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
Yes. I concur with frajo.

The closest I will ever come to the meanings of any language (specifically, the meaning of words) in any form used, (reading, writing, speech, etc.)is usage.

My working model for meaning is acquired through usage - or what frajo calls "associations" of sound and context, but, as he pointed out, not language.

Frajo's reference to "operation" reminds me of "parallelism' in the context of computers doing 'parallel' operations - it keeps the computer
"busy" (capacity/usage efficiency), where it otherwise runs "idle".

Frajo's "gap-filling operation" is parallelism, whether your "channel" is small (mono-linguistic), or "channels" are large(multilingual).

In monolingualism, parallelism is associated with synonyms, antonyms, etc., etc.

In multilingualism, parallelism represents the above mentioned associations also. And more(meaning).

Incredulously, the ambiguity of the meaning of words runs inversely proportional to the size of the vocabulary - cont.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
...the bigger the vocabulary, the smaller the ambiguity of the meaning of all words, regardless of how your vocabulary is extended. Whether it is through synonyms, antonyms or additional 'languages'- it makes no difference.

It takes very little stretch of the imagination to imagine a human capable of all human languages. Such a person has but one 'language' - the human language. He/She probably won't feel you are using any other language other than the human language.

Such a person will quickly point out whether the meaning of the words you are using is ambiguous or not. Such a person can reference words and meaning to 'languages' not known to you, yet are far more precise and concise to convey the meaning you wish to convey.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
I feel like frajo, but I think there is some sort of swiching going on , and separation between the different languages because I have hurt of people which in different sort of accidents start to speak only one good, and the other is gone at all...
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
Interesting article but I think it should be more than that.

When I told someone a story or a news that I read long time ago, I sometimes do not remember what language of the story was written in originally but I manage to tell the story in either one of the languages I know.
Jun 02, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
Hint for Google translator users: It's Romanian. :)
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
Hahaha neighbour:)
Поздрави от България.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
The kirilic is bad accepted, this is discriminton...
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
This is due to the PhysOrg database which doesn't support unicode. But it doesn't matter, as Google translator accepts the HTML code, too.
One thing, however, confuses me: Translating from Bulgarian results in "Greetings from Bulgaria" while translating from Russian gives "Congratulations to Bulgaria".
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
Yes, and the best part with the communication here in the Balkan peninsula is that the bulgarian "yes" (da) means "no" (ne) to greecs, and the oposit their no(da) means yes for us , and the nodding is the oposit, when we meen yes we shake hed prom left to right(which is unique for a really small part of the cultures)....this can explane part of the problems in the past:)
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
While I have no idea of Bulgarian (except that it is said to be a highly interesting language because of its many admixtures from other languages), there is no "da" in Greek. In Russian, "da" is yes. But in Greek, it's "nai" and "oxi" (the English sounds being something like "ney" and "awkhee").
And it's really a pity that we can't write unicode here.

The nodding/shaking of the head in Greece is a bit complicated. When you meet an old man, he'll likely move his head like you said the Bulgarians do. But younger people mostly behave like Central Europeans.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
Yes, we are in a crossroad here, long in the past saxons were living here too.
About that nodding/shaking, I didnt know that old people are doing it, maybe we are starting to conform too, at least I am because it is really funny to say yes and shake head- people are thinking "this person is mentaly ill somehow, or at least he is not honest"
I read somewere that the right thing for no is shaking , because when a baby brestfeed and when it is full it start to shake head, it make some sense...
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2010
I know Indian (at least some of them), shake head means yes in their culture.

I also wonder especially in this computer age, is there any one or every government do something to protect their countries' languages or speech (some of them have no written forms)?
not rated yet Jul 13, 2010

I also wonder especially in this computer age, is there any one or every government do something to protect their countries' languages or speech (some of them have no written forms)?

"The Long Now Foundation chose to begin by creating a key, a kind of "decoder ring" for any information we might leave behind in written form - in any language. The Rosetta Disk collection has as its core a set of "parallel" information - the same texts, the same set of vocabulary, the same kinds of description - for over 1,000 human languages."

Also, Im a native english speaking american, and last night I had a dream I spoke in Chinese. As someone studying Mandarin on my own with no teacher, this was an awesome breakthrough.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.