Unique cues can bolster bilingual fluency

By LIDIA WASOWICZ, UPI Senior Science Writer  |  Oct. 29, 2003 at 2:00 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Bilingual speakers can rotate two languages with the speed and skill of a master juggler, simultaneously balancing both on the tip of their tongue, researchers report.

New experiments also show how unusual cues -- an upside-down or sideways picture representing a foreign word, say -- can bolster a novice's language-learning agility. The latest findings in the burgeoning field of linguistics point to uncanny cognitive dexterity in persons fluent in multiple dialects.

"What appears amazing is that people do not make extensive mistakes," said lead investigator Judith Kroll, professor of psychology and applied linguistics at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "We have an exquisite cognitive control system that monitors the code switching between one language and another."

Even routine tasks can bespeak the system's extraordinary efficiency, scientists told United Press International.

"Think about ... the ability to come up with the right word at just the right time, to use somewhat different vocabulary when speaking with your 18-month-old toddler than when speaking with your college professor," said Viorica Marian, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"Understanding words in one, two or more languages is in many ways similar, with overlap and interaction among a multilingual's languages," Marian, who was not involved in the research, told UPI.

Scientists long have wondered whether multiple languages compete or coalesce in a speaker's mind, investigators said.

"What's new is the use of carefully controlled cognitive psychology experiments to answer this question," said renowned linguist Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Vilas Professor and Sir Frederic C. Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"The answer is important in demonstrating that, for fluent bilinguals, the two languages are indeed typically activated in their minds; however, fluent bilinguals can manage this simultaneous activation easily -- and use it to an advantage," Gernsbacher, a professor of psychology specializing in adult cognitive processes and language, told UPI.

She drew an analogy with a quiz show in which the contestant selects as the next category, "Movies That Star Meryl Streep." It would be to his advantage to mentally activate all the pertinent titles before the question is posed, she noted.

"What is elegant -- both for the contestant on the quiz show and the fluent bilingual -- is that the simultaneous activation of Meryl Streep movies (or, in the case of the bilingual, word representations in both languages) doesn't interfere with selecting the intended movie title (or word); the simultaneous activation actually helps," Gernsbacher explained.

"Then, just as the quiz show contestant uses the actual question to identify which Meryl Streep movie to use as an answer, the fluent bilingual uses cues in the environment to select which language to articulate."

Kroll and company conducted experiments to help determine the role and usability of cues in mastering a new tongue.

"The logic of the research presented is to show that the problem can be solved if cues are present, either in the language or in the environment, that allow the more dominant first language to be inhibited," Kroll said.

In a series of tests, Kroll, along with Penn State graduate students Gretchen Sunderman, Natasha Miller, Natasha Tokowicz and Erica Michael, and a Dutch group led by Ton Dijkstra at the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands, found both the vernacular and secondary tongue turn on together, each instantly ready to emerge as verbal expression.

The researchers presented pictures of objects to native Dutch speakers who also were proficient in English and had no advance warning of which language they would be asked to use. They instructed the participants to speak Dutch if they heard a high tone and English if a low tone sounded.

"If we cannot prevent ourselves from having both languages available simultaneously, then we cannot devise a means for suppressing one language," Kroll explained. "Instead, we forced the subjects to think about them both at the same time and compared their performance when asked to name the object only in their first or second language."

In several variations on the theme, the scientists asked the volunteers to speak only in Dutch and, in an added twist, included pictures with cognate names that sounded similar in both languages.

"Bilinguals were faster to name cognates, and the result held for the second language even when they were not forced to have the first language active," Kroll explained. "Because most of the research in our lab and others suggests that there is a high degree of competition between the two languages, understanding the mechanisms whereby it is resolved will have important implications more generally for cognitive models of competitive processes."

The results support a growing body of evidence that points to simultaneous mobilization of both languages in bilingual speakers, scientists told UPI.

"A number of studies have shown that when bilinguals hear or read words in one language, words in the other language are also activated," Marian said, adding that her own research has demonstrated such dual activation during oral comprehension tests of speakers fluent in more than one language. "Dr. Kroll's research further supports the simultaneous activation position, this time for language production," she said.

It is possible a speaker's entire linguistic repertoire may remain active at all times, but to a different extent depending on the demands of the moment, researchers speculate.

"For example, a Finnish-English bilingual who has lived in the United States for over 30 years speaking only English with her family and co-workers may have a very low threshold of activation for English and a very high threshold of activation for Finnish (that is, English is readily activated, while Finnish is much less activated)," Marian theorized. "If that bilingual visits relatives in Finland for a few weeks, the threshold of activation for Finnish would go down, and the threshold of activation for English may go up." Marian said she expects the premise to hold true for speakers proficient in multiple languages.

In another phase of the research, the investigators looked at concepts underlying the increasingly popular total immersion programs that thrust the learner into an environment where only the foreign tongue is spoken. Scientists have thought such massive exposure to a second language would suppress the first.

Kroll suspected a key to success is locked in learning a new set of cues to the new language. She tested her theory on students unfamiliar with German or Dutch who were taught a list of 40 Dutch words by associating them with their English counterparts or with a picture shown in its normal or altered configuration.

People who learned Dutch in association with a uniquely oriented object were faster later on at translating English words into Dutch, Kroll said. "The misoriented pictures served as a unique cue." The results point to an unusual trigger -- be it a tilted picture or a novel environment -- as a potential way to suppress the native tongue and facilitate the learning of a new one, she said.

Kroll reached similar conclusions in studies comparing the performance of intermediate learners of Spanish before and after a semester abroad. "The results of both ... suggest that immersion is critical for speaking," Kroll said. "In the actual immersion study we show that individual differences in ... how much information a person can juggle at once affects the ease of acquiring comprehension skills." The immersion experience helps hone those skills, she added.

"These are very interesting findings," Gernsbacher said, "and they have ramifications for learning new languages and maintaining multiple languages."

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