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Bilingual benefits: Switching languages with ease

NSF Award:

Language Processing in Bilinguals  (Pennsylvania State Univ University Park)

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Bilingual speakers have the remarkable ability to switch from one language to another when speaking to others who are bilingual in the same languages. This phenomenon, known as code switching, occurs naturally both within and between sentences in fluent bilingual discourse. A question in past research was whether language switching occurs at the expense of language processing. 

In a recent study, a team of scientists led by Judith Kroll of Pennsylvania State University demonstrated that switching languages mid-sentence does not affect bilingual speakers' ability to process words in the new language. The speakers process words as easily after the switch as they did prior to it. Bilinguals also read words as fast out loud in each language, regardless of whether they had just read a sentence in the other language.

Kroll's research suggests that areas of the brain that underpin the two languages are simultaneously active, regardless of the intention to use one language alone. Bilinguals rarely make the error of speaking words in the unintended language, suggesting that they possess the ability to control the parallel activity of the two languages and ultimately select the intended one. 

Based on findings in this research, a natural feature of bilingualism is the simultaneous activation of the two languages in the brain. This facilitates language switching rather than interference when moving between two languages. The research suggests that cost-free language processing may produce some of the observed bilingual advantages in problem- solving, mental flexibility, attention control and task switching.

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  • bilinguals switch languages with ease
Bilinguals switch languages with ease.
Judith Kroll, Pennsylvania State University

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