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Bilingual people retrieve native language when reading

Bilingual people continue to retrieve sounds from their native language even if they believe they only think in one language at a time, according to researchers at Bangor University in the UK. The scientists found that adults fluent in English but whose first language is Chine...
Bilingual people retrieve native language when reading
Bilingual people continue to retrieve sounds from their native language even if they believe they only think in one language at a time, according to researchers at Bangor University in the UK. The scientists found that adults fluent in English but whose first language is Chinese unconsciously rely on their native language when reading in English. Support for the research, which cost just under EUR 1 million, came from the European Research Council (ERC) and the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The scientists concluded that their study, the results of which are published in the June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggested that people who learn a second language in adolescence or later continue to recall the sounds of words from their native language even if they become fluent in their second language.

Guillaume Thierry, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Bangor, said that although most bilingual people believe they function solely in one language at any given time, these findings show that it is not necessarily the case.

'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,' Professor Thierry explained.

He said that while bilingual individuals have been shown to access their native language while reading in or listening to their other language, he and colleague Yan Jing Wu, research project support officer at the University of Bangor's School of Psychology, wanted to investigate the type of mental representation, namely sound or spelling, that they retrieve.

To learn how two languages interact in a bilingual mind, Professor Thierry and Dr Wu asked 90 volunteers - 30 native Chinese speakers, 30 native English speakers and 30 Chinese-English bilingual adults who had learned English after the age of 12 - to perform a reading and a listening test.

The English-speaking volunteers had to decide whether pairs of English words had similar meanings, while the authors recorded their brain activity. The volunteers were unaware that some of the unrelated word pairs concealed either a sound or a spelling repetition in their Chinese translations. For example, the unrelated English word pair 'experience' and 'surprise' translates to 'jing yan' and 'jing ya'.

The results showed the bilingual adults responded to words with related meaning as quickly as native English speakers. Likewise, spelling repetition in Chinese translations had no effect. However, when English words translated into Chinese had similar sounds and were presented to the bilingual volunteers, the wave of brain activity called the N400 changed.

According to the researchers, this suggested that the Chinese language words were being accessed and that processing a second language activates the sound, but not the spelling, of native language translations.

Dr Wu and Professor Thierry said their work would help researchers understand how the brain manages symbols and sounds in different languages.

Michael Chee, neuroscientist at the Duke-NUS (National University of Singapore) Graduate Medical School in Singapore, who was unaffiliated with the study, commented that even though people who learn a second language later in life are discouraged from directly translating words from their native language, they may be doing so anyway.

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

Source: Journal of Neuroscience

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