Bilingualism: How we turn on and off languages

A team of researchers has uncovered the distinct computations that occur when individuals switch between different languages, this finding is important because it could provide new insights into the nature of bilingualism.

Appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, a New York University doctoral candidate and lead author of this study explained that their study helps pinpoint what occurs in the brain during the language switching process.

Most importantly, this will help better understand the neural activity that is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a different one.

Previous studies have suggested that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint. However, it was unknown until this study, whether it was disengaging from the previous language or engaging in a new language that drove the language switch.

Researchers studied bilingual individuals fluent in English and American Sign Language (ASL), since they often produce both languages simultaneously.

The results showed that when bilinguals fluent in ASL and English switched languages, turning a language “off” led to increased activity in cognitive control areas while turning a language “on” was no different than not switching, according to the article.

Over all, these findings suggested that the difficulty of language-switching does not lie in engaging a new language, but instead is due to the disengagement from the previous language, says Blanco-Elorrieta.

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