A rare instance where it's not better to be bilingual

ResearchBlogging.orgI've always been amazed by people who are truly bilingual. While I've studied languages in school, I've never been able to seamlessly switch between languages, and even my best non-English language, French, is choppy at best. Compare this to the people I see in restaurants or on the subway, who can have conversations in two languages at once, speaking each language with equal fluency. They might tell a story in English, but save the punch line for Spanish. If a monolingual person talks to them, they instantly respond in the proper language, with hardly a second thought.

There are enough bilingual people in the world to suggest that they don't have some special ability that the rest of us lack; they've simply had more practice than others and learned it at a young enough age to avoid an accent achieve mastery. Some children are taught one language at home and another at school, or their parents each speak different languages, so they learn both. But still, the difference between monolingual and bilingual individuals is dramatic enough that you'd expect to find differences in other aspects of their behavior.

In fact, some researchers have found that bilinguals are better at certain tasks than non-bilinguals. One example is the Simon task, where two objects are flashed on the screen side-by-side. Respondents might press a button on the left when one of the objects is red and a button on the right when one of the objects is green. Bilinguals are better at the task than monolinguals when the object in question is on the opposite side of the button they have to push (for example, the green object is on the left but you have to press the right-hand button to indicate "green").

This makes some sense -- after all, a person who speaks both English and Spanish has had a lot of practice not speaking the wrong language, which may be similar to not pressing the wrong button.

But if it's possible for bilinguals to have better performance at some tasks, it's also possible that they might be worse at some things too. Consider the following movie:

A team led by Barbara Treccani showed students a set of movies similar to this; they were instructed to ignore the Os and click one of four different buttons to indicate which position each X appeared in. The trick with these movies is that sometimes the Os acted as negative primes: If an O appears in a spot where the X later appears, then the act of ignoring the O on one screen makes it harder to spot the X on the next screen.

In fact, every display was coordinated: the first two Xs and Os in our example appeared in spots where there had been no letter before, so there was no priming at all for either Xs or Os. The fourth X, on the other hand, appeared in a spot where an O had been before: This is a case of negative priming.

Treccani's team showed 29 bilingual and 29 monolingual students movies like this (with the Xs and Os appearing in dozens of random, different positions) and measured accuracy and reaction time. Here are some of the results:


In cases where there was no priming, bilinguals made significantly fewer errors than monolinguals: just as in the Simon task, they were better at ignoring irrelevant information.

But in negative priming trials, where the O appeared in the same spot as the X on the next screen, bilinguals made significantly more mistakes than monolinguals. However, the results were complicated. In some other trials, there was no difference between bilingual and monolingual respondents. And in no cases did one group react faster than the other group, so these results are less clear-cut than the earlier Simon task results.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting finding that bilinguals don't always experience a cognitive advantage over monolinguals. The discipline it takes to seamlessly switch from one language to another can also make some tasks a little more different for bilinguals.

Treccani, B., Argyri, E., Sorace, A., & Sala, S. (2009). Spatial negative priming in bilingualism Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 (2), 320-327 DOI: 10.3758/PBR.16.2.320

[Note: I used a different movie format for this post--MPEG-4, which should work better on computers that don't have QuickTime. I've added a poll below so we can see if this is working well. Or you can let me know how it works in the comments.]

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I don't know if I can call myself truly bilingual. For the first 25 years of my life, I was MUCH more fluent in Serbian than English. But in the past 18, I have switched to almost 100% use of English and my Serbian is rusty (though it comes back fast whenever I travel there). I am more of a rapid switcher than truly bilingual, I think.

It is true that if Bill Gate had not translated his programs into other languages(tongues) that that of shakespeare he would not have sold many computers! Certain sites (who want international) propose different languages(tongues) of reading. It is an asset(trump card).
As for the translators on internet... Whooââff!
( Traduc. 'Reverso'!)

C'est vrai que si Bill Gate n'avait pas traduit ses programmes en d'autres langues que celle de shakespeare il n'aurait pas vendu beaucoup d'ordinateurs ! Certains sites (qui se veulent internationaux) proposent des langues de lecture différentes. C'est un atout.
Quant aux traducteurs sur internet... Whooââff !
(traduc. 'Reverso' !)

Re: the movie format. On Firefox 3.0.11 it shows a little lego piece and says "Click here to download plug-in", and when I did it searched for the plug-in for a second then said "plug-in not found".

Therefore can't see the movie.


I think you would not have qualified for the study -- all "bilingual" participants had been raised from a young age speaking two languages, and spoke each with equal proficiency

I appreciate the movie format change, I was ignoring all posts with QuickTime clips included before.

cm - I'm using Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-GB; rv: Gecko/2009060215 Firefox/3.0.11 and had no problems viewing the movie

Hmmm. I could not see this movie.

I run linux (OpenSUSUE 11.0) and Firefox 3.0.11.

I have no trouble with video on CNN and Youtube, etc.

By Jim Ramsey (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

I wish you'd defined "bilingualism" at the outset without having the reader rely on his or her preconceptions. Mine became clear when I got to this comment about people who are bilingual: "they've simply had more practice than others and learned it [a second language] at a young enough age to avoid an accent"

Do your really think that having an accent disqualifies an otherwise fluent speaker from being bilingual? If so, we are speaking about an unrealistic standard of linguistic achievement, and a needlessly narrow one, too. Everyone has an accent relative to someone else, in English as well as in other languages. The OED, 2nd ed. (1989) accessed online June 23, 2009, puts this beautifully into perspective: An accent (def. #3) is "The mode of utterance peculiar to an individual, locality, or nation [...]"

Please note that the OED marks an accent as the property of an individual, first and foremost. My accent is a "mode of utterance peculiar to" me and shaped by the various circumstances of birth, travel and learning. So is yours. Even though most people understand the words I'm saying when I speak, some of my interlocutors may detect differences between my word stress, sentence prosody or vowel production with respect to someone else they have recently heard, or a "running average" of standard media pronunciation. They may do the same when I switch into a different language in mid-sentence, for I'm sure I have an accent, a personal soundscape, in every language I speak.

Being able to think, articulate those thoughts and receive the thoughts of others fluently in more than one language makes one multilingual, at least according to my definition. The exact sound that a person makes when speaking, as long as he or she is articulating words most listeners can easily recognize, should have nothing to do with multilingualism. Accent is not a dialect; accent is a regional, local or PERSONAL variation with respect to a standardized or majority pronunciation, which, by the way, is also subtly changing all the time.

By Joanna Szurmak (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

The discussion on accents is very interesting. Joanna, I see your point and I agree, but I think the key of the matter is in the different *kinds* of accents. What the article is talking about (and what most people mean by "accent" in the context of multilingual speech) is an accent of a *foreign language* in the language you're speaking. American English with a US southern accent is by no means in the same category as American English with a Spanish accent. The former denotes a person completely fluent and/or native to English, whereas the latter shows a person who is not all the way there. I'm saying "completely fluent" to mean "indistinguishable from a native." Fluent can, of course, mean "fully able to communicate and think in the language" despite accents, but as long as there still are distinctively non-native tones in the pronunciation, it's not all the way there. Therefore, personal and regional accents *within* the borders of the language itself don't make the speaker any less fluent (for English: southern accents, British accents, Irish accents, personal such). However, accents from *other languages* do, and despite perfect grammatical, colloquial and other command of the language, they will always set the speaker apart from natives.

The definition of "bilingual" is crucial in determining how much such a non-native accent matters, and I don't think the article makes that definition clear. It's difficult for me to define myself as bilingual or not. I've spent my first 19 years in Bulgaria, then moved to the USA, where I have now been for 6. I had both high school (in BG) and college (in the USA) taught entirely in English, so my complex and analytical thought has developed in English, and it's difficult for me to construct complex arguments in Bulgarian. However, because I started learning English late, at age 14, despite the 11 years I've been speaking it, I still have a slight "foreign accent" which natives immediately recognize. I dream in English and think in English, switch between English and Bulgarian seamlessly, but even though English is shaping up to be my stronger language, I will always sound foreign to natives because of that tiny shade of an accent. Trapped between the ever-rusting, simpler Bulgarian, and the non-natively accented and sometimes awkward English, now I don't have either at 100%. What does that make me?

Sorry for the confusion about accents. The study did not test participants for accents, only proficiency in each language. The key for this study is that one language cannot be dominant; participants used each language at least 40 percent of the time. But all bilinguals in the study had been exposed to both languages from a very early age: at least six years or younger, with nearly all participants being exposed to both languages from birth.

I think the word "accent" as employed here should be changed to "lack of fluidity", or a sentence paraphrasing of that sort.

Movie may be blocked, I can see it but not play it. Could be a thing with IE6 though. So uh, you might need to ignore my vote, or not.

But you summarised well enough that the movie is not necessary, I think.

By Katherine (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

In Swedish we distinguish between "accent" and "brytning" where the first implies any kind of noteworthy difference in speech or intonation while the second one specifically signifies mixing intonation and pronunciation from a different language. That can mean that the identical pronunciation may be "brytning" for one person (they learned it as a second language) and "accent" or dialect for another (they're monolingual but from an immigrant family, say).

With that said, I don't think your accent by itself matters in any material way for this kind of study. This kind of pronunciation errors are, I suspect, not mainly a linguistic feature - you know how it's supposed to sound and immediately react when somebody else gets it wrong - but more a matter of ingrained motor patterns that are hard to reverse and change.

BTW: Ubuntu, Firefox 3 and the video plays just fine.

Je can sehe Ñилма.

By AnomyMoose (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

This is all fine and interesting research, but of what use is being able to do such an abstract task in the real world?

Hmm... a fast-paced game of tic-tac-toe?

Re: the movie - it runs fine on my iPhone as one might expect.

Maybe it's relevant to the real world when trying to spot edible seeds among other material, telling the grass apart from the tigers, or driving properly through cross traffic and oncoming traffic.

By AnomyMoose (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

I was born hard of hearing and learned a little sign language as a teenager, but otherwise learned to lipread and read in English (hearing language - would be the same situation I think, if I'd been born deaf/hard of hearing to a Spanish speaking or French or whatever language)...and as I get older, hearing is actually getting worse, but because I'm around hearing people more often, my sign language is getting rustier and rustier. When I spend a week or so with deaf friends every day practicing, then both my receptive and my expressive skills improve. Otherwise, my expressive (my signing to them) is always worse then my receptive (my ability to understand "most" of what is signed to me by others). So anyway, just thought I'd throw this in, but I really feel I'd be more bilingual if I'd been allowed to learn my visual language as a child (as was recommended by doctors at the time), instead of being forced to learn to speak and function as a "hearing" person. As it is, I do find a "switching" process when I'm around signing for several days - I even get to where I'm dreaming in ASL...(in this situation, I'm referring to American Sign Language, but I'm sure it would be applicable to Australian Sign Language if I was actually Australian.).

I'm thinking this is that sames switching that has me taking a long time to get out of the "translating" word for word ASL gloss to English word, without going into a "that's bad English" mode, instead of just recognizing that ASL is it's own grammar (is actually very similar in grammar as some of the Euro languages like German/Deutsch - for example, in English, we'd say "the big white house" and in ASL or in German, it would be in the word order more like "the house big white", as I understand it.).

In any case, this was an interesting article and I'm sure has applications to deaf education, especially with all the uproar about bi-cultural bi-lingulal allowing kid to learn their visual sign language as well as the verbal/reading language of their hearing family/friends/peers. But...I don't pretend to be an expert, as I'm still learning about this in my own life experiences, so please don't take offense.


By msdrpepper (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

I was born in the US, but have lived in Japan for the last 35 years. I am native in English, fluent in Japanese, and speak a reasonable French and German, besides a smattering of Korean and Russian.

So. I find my personality does change when speaking whichever language I happen to be speaking. Of course, there is much English use in Japan, and many Westerners, but bilingualism has changed my American English. It is interesting to help a lost Australian couple around, and then have them ask if I am Irish. Nope, never been to Europe, born in America.

Being bilingual is also being bicultural, and you learn to think about world events in a different way, and you tend to be a political liberal.

All in all not a bad thing.

I am fluent in 3 languages. My parents spoke an Asian language at home, I was educated in French from daycare until college and my environment was English/French. This is not uncommon in Montreal, where many immigrants' children have had to comply with the linguistic laws of the province. The 3 languages are so natural to me that I sometimes don't even 'hear' the words: I just automatically see images in my mind.

I'm not sure that I would have had a problem with those videos, not because I'm clever, but because I play similar mini-games on my laptop or iPhone when I'm bored. What I do know is that abstract notions, like numbers and formulas, take a little longer for me to process than languages. I can do them fine but I really have to focus.

I could see the movie, with:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux x86_64; en-US; rv: Gecko/2009060309 Ubuntu/9.04 (jaunty) Firefox/3.0.11

I couldn't see the video at all with Internet Explorer. It was just a white box with a small red "x" in the upper left corner.

So... let me get this straight. Bilinguals can:
Order in some restaurants in their native tongue
Talk to more people around the world
Carry on a conversation directly in front of me that in many cases might as well be ESP
I can:
Maybe commit slightly fewer errors on a variation of the Simon task under certain conditions. Possibly.

Imagine my relief. :-P

I read as far as comment 1 and 2. This website needs filtering on the comments, both of those comments add less than nothing to the website, and I don't have the energy to attempt comment #3.

By Brett Cox (not verified) on 27 Jun 2009 #permalink

I just finished an article on learning a second language helps a childâs cognitive development, such as higher levels of metalinguistic awareness, which involves the ability to think flexibly and abstractly about language, and thus have higher abilities to analyze linguistic input.

Moreover, research appears to suggest a positive relationship between bilingualism and a wide range of other cognitive measures, including superior performance on concept formation tasks (Bain, 1974), enhanced ability to restructure perceptual solutions (Balkan, 1970), stronger performances in rule discovery tasks (Bain, 1975), greater verbal ability and verbal intelligence (Bruck, Lambert, and Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986; Weatherford, 1986), precocious levels of divergent thinking and creativity (Cummins & Gulutsan, 1974; Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991), and children reach higher levels of cognitive development at an earlier age than their monolingual peers (Hamayan, 1986).

Besides, a bilingualâs unique access to two cultures enables them a wider range of perspectives and experiences than monolinguals, enhancing the possibility they will think from different points of view.

Therefore, the fact that you are a bilingual should not hurt your baby's language development at all. Instead it will help her in many ways. I think there is nothing to worry about your baby's current situation. Each baby is a individual. Maybe she will suddenly speak sentences and surprise you.

I have been speaking certain phrases in Polish to my one year old since he was born and he understands those phrases. It'll be interesting to see his language development, whether it will be slower or not, since he is essentially learning 2 languages. I would assume that his development will be slower, but he'll understand both languages, but I am not sure.