Monday, 24 August 2009

Second language changes the way bilinguals read in their native tongue

Do bilinguals have an internal switch that stops their two languages from interfering with each other, or are both languages always "on"? The fact that bilinguals aren't forever spurting out words from the wrong language implies there's some kind of switch. Moreover, in 2007, brain surgeons reported evidence for a language switch when their cortical prodding with an electrode caused two bilingual patients to switch languages suddenly and involuntarily.

On the other hand, there's good evidence that languages are integrated in the bilingual mind. For example, bilinguals are faster at naming an object when the word for that object is similar or the same in the two languages they speak (e.g. ship/schip in English and Dutch).

Now Eva Van Assche and colleagues have provided further evidence for the idea of bilingual language integration by showing that a person's second language affects the way that they read in their native language.

The researchers recorded the eye movements of 45 bilingual Belgian students as they read sentences in their native Dutch tongue. The key finding was that they read Dutch words faster when the equivalent word in their second language, English, was similar or the same as the Dutch word. Specifically, they spent less time fixating on words like "piloot" ("pilot" in English) than on control words like "eend" (that's "duck" in English).

Van Aassche and her colleagues said this shows that even when bilinguals read sentence after sentence in their native tongue, access to words in their second language remains open, rather than switched off, thus having an effect on the way the native language is processed.

"Becoming a bilingual means one will never read the newspaper again in the same way," they concluded. "It changes one of people's seemingly most automatic skills, namely, reading in one's native language."

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Assche E, Duyck W, Hartsuiker RJ, & Diependaele K (2009). Does Bilingualism Change Native-Language Reading? Cognate Effects in a Sentence Context. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19549082

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy:

-Babies raised in a bilingual home show enhanced cognitive control.
-Change your personality, learn a new language.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Charlie Kalech said...

Curious about languages in a different character set and direction - For instance Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese

cajoler said...

I completely agree with Charlie on this. I am Bulgarian and the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet have differences.
The examples that are pointed out show only Latin alphabets at work.

Anonymous said...

An interesting litmus test to tease out effects of orthography vs phonology would be to test Korean-English bilinguals. Korean has its own unique orthography, but there are also many English loan words in the language that sound similar to their English counterparts (with the exception of adjusting to the phonotactics of Korean).

Hettie said...

The definition of "bilingual" seems to change across studies. I am bilingual myself and haven't experienced that I no longer read newspaper articles in my native tongue the same way. Albeit there aren't many English words that are similar to words in my native tongue.

Anonymous said...

I can remember when my Swedish born grandmother told me about when she first stopped thinking in Swedish. As a child I found that fasinating and felt that it would be really confusing to be translating things in your head up until that point.

Ewa said...

Bilinguals use all resources available to them at a given time. Grosjean calls the state of activation of the bilingual’s languages and language processing mechanisms at a given point in time the language mode. He states that activation is a continuous variable ranging from no activation to total activation. In all positions it is language A (the base language) that is the most active and it is language B that is activated to lesser degrees. So even though the reading assignment was in language A, the subjects kept their language B activated.
Read on at:

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