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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.”