Bilingualism no big deal for brain, researcher finds

How do people who speak more than one language keep from mixing them up? How do they find the right word in the right language when being fluent in just one language means knowing about 30,000 words?

That's what science has wondered about for decades, offering complicated theories on how the processes more than one and sometimes theorizing that degrades .

But University of Kansas psycholinguist Mike Vitevitch thinks that complicated explanations of how the brain processes two or more languages overlook a straightforward and simple explanation.

"The inherent characteristics of the — how they sound — provide enough information to distinguish which language a word belongs to," he said. "You don't need to do anything else."

And in an analysis of English and Spanish, published in the April 7 online edition of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, Vitevitch found few words that sounded similar in the two languages.

Most theories of how bilingual speakers find a word in memory assume that each word is "labeled" with information about which language it belongs to, Vitevitch said.

But he disagrees. "Given how different the words in one language sound to the words in the other language, it seems like a lot of extra and unnecessary mental work to add a label to each word to identify it as being from one language or the other. "

Here's an analogy. Imagine you have a bunch of apples and oranges in your fridge. The apples represent one language you know, the oranges represent another language you know and the fridge is that part of memory known as the lexicon, which contains your knowledge about language. To find an apple you just look for the round red thing in the fridge and to find an orange you just look for the round orange thing in the fridge. Once in a while you might grab an unripe, greenish orange mistaking it for a granny smith apple. Such instances of language "mixing" do happen on occasion, but they are pretty rare and are easily corrected, said Vitevitch.

"This process of looking for a specific piece of fruit is pretty efficient as it is —labeling each apple as an apple and each orange as an orange with a magic marker seems redundant and unnecessary."

Given how words in one language tend to sound different from words in another language, parents who speak different languages should not worry that their children will be confused or somehow harmed by learning two languages, said Vitevitch.

"Most people in most countries in the world speak more than one language," said Vitevitch. "If the U.S. wants to successfully compete in a global economy we need people who can communicate with potential investors and consumers in more than one language."

Provided by University of Kansas
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May 31, 2011
That's great you speak so many languages, however you may actually categorize the languages differently. Particularly since you point out #6, Mandarin, has been the hardest to learn. Mandarin is difficult, especially for native English speakers since you not only have to learn several thousand new visual characters in order to read at a basic level, but you have to learn several hundred different syllables that are based on a tonal value system completely different than Latin based languages.

Have you thought about learning sign language? It's simplified grammar structure may greatly help you transition your thought process to Chinese.

I do actually agree with you that additional research should be done based on different bilingual combinations. Particularly Latin/Chinese based. But, when it comes to organizing words and languages in the brain, it may actually be far easier mentally to keep a Latin-based language distinctly separate from a Chinese-based language.

May 31, 2011
the most complicated is Mandarin which I started learning 2yrs ago
Where it gets complicated is when you have a language like Mandarin which requires processing twice, 1st-English to Pinyin then Pinyin to Hanzi. The process was difficult at first because the brain is trying to learn the process, vocabulary, tone, characters, then grammar. The brain adapts to the best way to handle the task but it is not simple.


I have learned mandarin for 7 years. Four of which are living here in China. I dont agree with your description of the process of learning the pinyin and then learning teh characters. It is easy to learn them together. And i feel that mandarin is not complex at all. on the contrary, it is very, very simple. The characters are tedious to learn, and that is what makes it difficult. mandarin has a consistent structure throughout (i.e. modifiers always precede the head word, etc. latin is probably more difficult with all the inflection. mandarin has none.

May 31, 2011
Latin based languages.


I do actually agree with you that additional research should be done based on different bilingual combinations. Particularly Latin/Chinese based. But, when it comes to organizing words and languages in the brain, it may actually be far easier mentally to keep a Latin-based language distinctly separate from a Chinese-based language.


Are we calling English a Latin based language? It is not. English roughly comes from Germanic. Later, Romance languages were included such as of course latin, but also french. also Greek has a heavy influence. I suspect this is because of a combonation of war with france, spreading christianity, and and efforts by the gentry at improving education, becuase Rome and Greece had significant cultural, political, military, architectural development compared with germanic people who were basically just tribesmen.

anyway, comparing latin and chinese is good, because latin is synthetic, and chinese is analytical.


Jun 01, 2011
this article mostly refers to spoken -- not written -- language comprehension. children learn to speak with a keen ear for dialects.

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