Think twice, speak once: Bilinguals process both languages simultaneously

September 10, 2013, Pennsylvania State University
A wordle of English and Spanish words is shown. Credit: Penn State

Bilingual speakers can switch languages seamlessly, likely developing a higher level of mental flexibility than monolinguals, according to Penn State linguistic researchers.

"In the past, were looked down upon," said Judith F. Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Women's Studies. "Not only is bilingualism not bad for you, it may be really good. When you're switching languages all the time it strengthens your mental muscle and your executive function becomes enhanced."

Fluent bilinguals seem to have both languages active at all times, whether both languages are consciously being used or not, the researchers report in a recent issue of Frontiers in Psychology. Both languages are active whether either was used only seconds earlier or several days earlier.

Bilinguals rarely say a word in the unintended language, which suggests that they have the ability to control the parallel activity of both languages and ultimately select the intended language without needing to consciously think about it.

The researchers conducted two separate but related experiments. In the first, 27 Spanish-English bilinguals read 512 sentences, written in either Spanish or English—alternating language every two sentences. Participants read the silently until they came across a word displayed in red, at which point they were instructed to read the red word out loud, as quickly and accurately as possible. About half of the red words were cognates—words that look and sound similar and have the same meaning in both languages.

"Cognate words were processed more quickly than control words," said Jason W. Gullifer, a in , suggesting that both languages are active at the same time.

Participants in the second experiment performed the same tasks as those in the first experiment, but this time were presented one at a time. The second experiment's results were similar to the first, suggesting that context does not influence word recognition.

"The context of the experiment didn't seem to matter," said Gullifer. "If you look at bilinguals there seems to be some kind of mechanistic control."

Paola E. Dussias, professor of Spanish and head of the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, department also collaborated on this research.

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1 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2013
Gullifer said, "If you look at bilinguals there seems to be some kind of mechanistic control."
The 'switch' is labeled 'cue' in the cognitive sciences.
'Cues' don't stop there.
For sake of clarity bilinguals can inject a word or phase that emphasizes or enhances
imprecise wording of the 'track' being use.

This universal 'ploy' between patient and clinicians, surgeons and assistants, scientists and laypersons is labeled 'jargon'. The only prerequisite here is both share the same repertoire in vocabulary.

Kudos Penn State researchers.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 11, 2013
This works just as well when you are trilingual or more. The fun part is skipping or switching seemlessly through all of them (ie in a situation where you might be conversing with several people more comfortable with those other languages) and watching certain yet other people's faces while you are doing it. The rapid switching can confuse the heck out of them. ;)
And beleg, it is not uncommon to know a word in one language (not just professional jargon), but not in another, even though you might be fluent in all. It can even depend on which language you were just thinking in, as to which word comes to mind. The 'cue' is whatever language you happen to be using at that moment, and cultural elements attached. Even body language changes (esp if learnt from within a culture, not just a classroom) when you switch over. Do you speak more than one language?
Cheers, DH66
5 / 5 (2) Sep 11, 2013
Bilinguals were looked down upon?
And that being being bilingual for you is (not 'may be') really good is also is also not exactly news.

"Both languages are active whether either was used only seconds earlier or several days earlier"
Or several years earlier (if you were totally immersed in the language at som epoint in your life). Could have told hier that.

"Bilinguals rarely say a word in the unintended language"
I dunno. I often get hung up trying to say something when only the word in the other language comes to mind. (Sometimes it helps if the words are similar in both languages. But if they're totally different - or worse yet: if there is a similar word but with different meaning - it can stop you dead for a few seconds)
5 / 5 (1) Sep 11, 2013
" "Bilinguals rarely say a word in the unintended language"
I dunno. I often get hung up trying to say something when only the word in the other language comes to mind. (Sometimes it helps if the words are similar in both languages. But if they're totally different - or worse yet: if there is a similar word but with different meaning - it can stop you dead for a few seconds) "

Gets even more frustrating when those words come in MORE THAN one language (so many more choices...) -except the one that you are attempting to express yourself in. LOL
Cheers, DH66
5 / 5 (2) Sep 11, 2013
Worst is when you get words that are the same but mean different things

"sensible" (english) means reasonable
The german word "sensibel" means sensitive (there's also the german word 'sensitiv' which is a synonym)
while "sensitive" (english) means "quick to react"

..add a couple of languages and in some cases it gets terribly confusing
5 / 5 (2) Sep 11, 2013
I am fluent in 5+ languages and for me, when I "switch" from one to another, which I do quite a bit, the process seems almost natural. If you have an extensive vocabulary and background for all these languages you speak, it just happens -- it is brilliant and so powerful for our brains to be able to express languages seamlessly without any effort whatsoever. What's even more cool is when you actually realized you spoke 3 different languages in a conversation... awesome!!!
Lorentz Descartes
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 11, 2013
I wish they'd done some research on bilingual translation. Personally, I'd been speaking two languages within the same day all the time, but when I started reading and translating English books into my family language to read to my kids, it was a wholly different experience. Took a while to master too. I'd love to see my synapses fire as I'm reading a from a book in one language, telling it in the other while changing a diaper and thinking about work! That really makes you hungry for some sugar afterwards!

5 / 5 (1) Sep 11, 2013
This is true even for people who aren't fluent. My sister comes from a monolingually English family, but learnt French in high school and learnt German from staying in Germany for five months. She wasn't fluent in either language.
She then became an au-pair in a bilingual family on the border between Germany and France for 6 months. For a few weeks she was confusing the languages but after that could easily switch between the languages during conversation.
However, now she's been back in England for a few months, she still sometimes accidentally says French or German words, even though there is nobody she regularly speaks to in either of the languages. This suggests at least some of the thinking is going on in one of these languages as well as English.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2013
To take this a step further still, how many of you are aware that multilingual people will also dream in different languages at the same time? I sometimes talk in my sleep and my roomie (while I was at boarding school) once told me that they had heard me start one sentence in one language, switch to another in the middle and end it in yet a third, all while I was asleep. Apparently it was quite funny to listen to, yet made sense all the way.
Best Regards, DH66
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2013
Raised bilingually. From my perspective I have just one language...I am no longer aware of 'translating' anything. Just so many 'words' to choose from when narrowing the meaning of any subject. This works when my conversation partners were raised bilingually in the same languages. 'Nahtlos' (seamless) 'switching' enhances the subject being discussed to a level and understanding not possible with monolingual-ism.

Vernünftig? Empfindlich? I am not aware of the conundrum you point out.

5 star comments - all of them.
For monolinguals - imagine a world without music - you are missing something in life.
2 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2013
Sorry about the umlaut in the German word 'reasonable'. Didn't know beforehand umlauts don't work here.
Maybe there is a workaround.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2013
Try typing the message in Word, then copy/paste. I haven't tried it, but I suspect that's how others have been getting around the limited number of types of characters that this editor allows.
Cheers, DH66
3 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2013
@ DH

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