Bilingual Adults Can’t Stop Thinking in Native Language

In foreign language classes, professors will often tell you that in order to be successful, you need to stop thinking in your native tongue and start thinking in the language you are trying to learn. This is harder than it sounds, and a new study suggests that even fully bilingual adults can’t stop thinking in their native languages.

The study, conducted by Bangor University, focused on 90 volunteers. 30 volunteers were native Chinese speakers, 30 were native English speakers and 30 spoke both English and Chinese. They were asked to decide whether pairs of English words had similar meanings, but some pairs consisted of unrelated words that nonetheless sound very similar to each other when translated into Chinese.

The bilingual volunteers performed just as well as on the tests as the native English speakers, but when they encountered pairs of words that were unrelated in English but that sound alike in Chinese, their brain waves changed. To the scientists performing the study, this indicates that on some level they were translating the words into Chinese, even though that wasn’t necessary to complete the test.

In Science Daily, Dr. Guillaume Thierry, one of the study’s authors, explained the conclusions the scientists were able to draw from the study:

“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words.”

The bilingual adults in this study all learned English relatively late, after age 12. Some scientists  feel that this is one of the study’s limitations, and question whether or not the same results would be obtained with children who learned another language at an early age.

For example, Michael Chee of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School told Science Daily that:

“One limitation of the study is that many older generation English learners from China learned English by memorizing lists of words in what seems like a brute force method of learning. It would be interesting to see if the same results would be obtained if persons learning English earlier were studied.”

6 replies
  1. Gemma
    Gemma says:

    I wonder if this study could be carried out with younger subjects and a West European language combination, would the results be different?

    Reply
  2. Pedder
    Pedder says:

    Since 12 is a very highage, I do not know whether the subjects really qualify as bilinguals. Many cognitive abilities have to be learned at a very realy age in order to fully develop. Language is noe of them, in my opinion.

    The problem is that bilingualism and high proficiency are often mixed up and not clearly defined. Does bilingualism refer to speaking two languages? Or does it refer to speaking to languages at such a high level that other native speakers, who are highly proficient in their language, would without hesitation assume that the bilingual person is a native speaker? I personally think that “bilingual” should be reserved to describe people who can speak two languages at such a level that they can express whatever they want (except, maybe, in highly technical contexts) without thinking about it and without being recognised as non-native speakers.

    I further think that it would be really interesting to conduct such an experiment with languages that are very closely related (e.g. Portuguese and Spanish) , with participants that learned both languages no later than at the age of 5 and who use both languages with comparable frequency.

    Reply
    • Veronica Suarez
      Veronica Suarez says:

      What if they’re being recognized as a non-native because of their accent? That has nothing to do with their ability to express themselves.

      Reply

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