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Both languages active in bilingual speakers

Even proficient bilingual speakers always have both languages on the tips of their tongues, according to Penn State researchers. "What appears amazing, is that people do not make extensive mistakes," says Dr. Judith F. Kroll, professor of psychology and applied linguistics. "We have an exquisite cognitive control system that monitors the code switching between one language and another." While no one knows exactly how the control system allows even people of limited bilingual ability to speak in a second language, Kroll and her students have been investigating how the mind shuffles words in both first and second languages.

"In the absence of language specific cues, words in both of the second language speaker's languages compete for selection well into the process of lexicalizing concepts into spoken words," Kroll told attendees at the Second Language Research Forum today (Oct. 18) in Tucson, Ariz.

Kroll, working with Gretchen Sunderman, Natasha Miller, Natasha Tokowicz and Erica Michael, all recent Penn State graduate students, together with colleagues in the Netherlands, devised a method for testing bilingual speakers that demonstrated that both languages are active at once. Because the researchers could not suppress one language or the other, they set up a test where both languages would be active, and then either the first or second language would be spoken.

Using test subjects who were native Dutch speakers with great proficiency in their second language, English, the researchers presented pictures of objects that were to be identified. The subjects did not initially know which language they would be asked to use to identify the picture, so words in both languages would naturally be active. The researchers then sounded a tone, a high tone for Dutch and a low tone for English, telling the subjects to speak the word in that language.

"If we cannot prevent ourselves from having both languages available simultaneously, then we cann
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Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
aem1@psu.edu
814-865-9481
Penn State
18-Oct-2003


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