How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. Some of the questions they are more interested in are: how people agree on when it is OK to go from one language to the other; and how people avoid getting confused when switching between their languages.

Two researchers at the Pennsylvania State University (USA) decided to look at a big data-set of Spanish-English bilinguals to answer these questions. They selected a huge collection of transcribed conversations between Spanish-English bilinguals and analysed what happened in each conversation when the two speakers inserted one or more words from Spanish in an English sentence, or the other way around.

Specifically, they wanted to see if people were more likely to switch between languages if the person who they were talking to had switched between languages in the same conversation. In other words, they wanted to see if bilingual speakers somehow imitate each other when switching between languages. We all imitate each other to some extent when conversing: we choose the same words, or the same type of sentence, sometimes we adopt a similar accent or even intonation. Researchers call this type of linguistic imitation ‘priming’, and suggest that it is a fundamental mechanism to adapt to the environment and understand each other.

In this study, the two researchers showed that bilinguals were indeed more likely to switch between languages not only if it had happened in the previous sentence, but even if words from the other language had been used as far as ten sentences before. This suggests that they did imitate each other in the long run. Interestingly, though, the researchers also found that people would also ‘imitate themselves’, that is to say, that speakers were consistent in their combined used of the two languages, even when speaking to a different person. This first result suggests that choosing to switch between languages is a consistent behaviour. It also shows that people adapt their choices to the context and to the person they are talking to.

Moreover, the researchers were interested in understanding how the speakers in their study were able to keep one of the two languages as a reference point. What they call the “language of reference” is the language in which the majority of grammatical bits are expressed when switching – bits of the language that keep sentences together, such as the words ‘that’ and ‘the’, as well as verbs expressing actions but also time (for example, ‘ran’ as opposed to ‘run’ conveys information about the past). In other words, they wanted to understand whether switching between languages has some consistency grammatically, or whether ultimately speakers get confused as to what language they are using exactly. Their analysis showed that speakers were choosing the reference language consistently not only with respect to the previous sentence, but to up to the last ten sentences, and consistently within and between sentences.

Switching between languages is a frequent and visible phenomenon in bilinguals, and shows that the two languages of bilingual speakers are always active. But this study shows that this behaviour is not different to the way language works in general, and that it is not random but consistent, and probably useful to the mechanism of adaptation both to the environment and other speakers, so as to ultimately achieve successful communication.

This study was published in the Journal of Memory and Language by Melinda Fricke and Gerrit Jan Kootstra. You can read it at:

Healthy Linguistic Diet


Post by Dr Thomas H Bak

One of the things that I miss most in the current debates on bilingualism is the lack of interaction between cognitive and social scientists. Both disciplines do important work in this field, but it is very rare that they meet, exchange ideas and discuss their respective findings, let alone develop joint concepts and theories. This is one of the reasons why I was so delighted to be invited by the European Commission, Directorate General Education and Culture to join the meeting of the 4th Thematic Panel on Languages and Literacy in September 2016 in Brussels. This meeting as well as the subsequent one in January 2017, at which I was invited to give a keynote lecture, gave me a chance to interact directly with people coming from very different professional background, working with different populations and using different methodologies.

A particularly important encounter for me was that with Dina Mehmedbegovic, who gave a keynote lecture at the September 2016 meeting. Dina’s background is in school education and she has studied in detail the attitudes to minority languages in England and Wales, which she documented in her book published in 2011. One of the concepts she developed was that of a “healthy linguistic diet[Read more…]

Our Annual Event 2017

By: Mariana Vega-Mendoza & Madeleine Long

On Friday 12 May 2017, Bilingualism Matters hosted its Annual Event at the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum. The event brought together professionals and researchers from areas such as education, neuroscience, and policy as well as members of the public.

The programme kicked off with registration and networking followed by a wonderful schedule of short talks hosted by Àdhamh Ó Broin. The first talk was by the Centre Director, Prof Antonella Sorace, [Read more…]

Irish Gaelic: political football or treasure?

Post by Dr. Mimo Caenepeel

A few weeks ago, a sideways reference in a larger news item about the current crisis in Northern Ireland caught my attention: the newsreader reported that  ‘support for the Irish language’ was one factor in the complex breakdown of relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP. A quick online check gave me a bit more information. Just before Christmas, the DUP’s community minister Paul Givan decided to withdraw £ 50,000 in funding for an Irish Language (or ‘Irish Gaelic’) bursary scheme. Although that decision has since been reversed, Sinn Féin at the time called it ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

While arguably small fish in an ocean of news, this struck me as an interesting example of the impact of community language issues, not just on daily life but also on political processes. A ‘community language’ is a language used as their primary language by a community of people on a daily basis. While the number of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who claim to have some knowledge of Irish is increasing (especially in urban areas like Dublin), the use of Irish as a community language is contracting; in fact, Irish is expected to disappear as a primary language by 2025. That puts Irish Gaelic (together with Scottish Gaelic) on the list of UK languages that are ‘definitely endangered’. [Read more…]

Not only the quantity matters: the importance of quality of input in language development

Sharon Unsworth talks about linguistic input in bilingual development

Post by Michela Bonfieni

Last week, the Linguistic Circle at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) at the University of Edinburgh hosted a talk by Sharon Unsworth, Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition at the Radboud University, the Netherlands. Born in Lancashire, Unsworth completed her PhD in Utrecht with a dissertation on the differences between adults and children in language acquisition. Aside from teaching, she is now the head of a research project exploring the cognitive and developmental aspects of multilingualism.

Sharon Unsworth’s research is aimed investigating which factors contribute to the successful acquisition of two or more languages in childhood. [Read more…]

Being bilingual is magical

I was born in England and moved to Pakistan aged 3. I guess I must have started school aged 6 or 7.  In Pakistan I was educated in the national language of Pakistan (Urdu), and speaking the regional language at home (Punjabi). Here I must point out that Punjabi is also the language of the Punjab region of India. The difference in between the Pakistani and Indian Punjabi is that, in Pakistan it is only spoken, where as in India it is a complete language. Almost every child with my background would be  learning to read Arabic (as the Holly Book Quran is In Arabic and is read by many who do not understand the language), often without having any or very little  understanding. Therefore any child with Pakistani background in the UK, would either be speaking Urdu/Punjabi, reading Arabic and speaking, reading and writing English. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

Research is not only sitting in front of your computer for hours

I am doing my PhD in Linguistics at Edinburgh. However, I’ve just found myself travelling to a big island in the Mediterranean Sea, meeting people with striking linguistic backgrounds and chatting about my research with enthusiastic listeners. I also happened to eat ravioli with mint and cheese (“culurgiones”), and sweets made of boiled grape (“thiriccas”), and of ricotta and saffron (“pardulas”). If any or all of the above sound appealing to you, here’s how I came to Sardinia to test bilingual speakers of my own language – Italian – and their own – Sardinian.

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

Scotland or Sardinia? Sheep grazing in the countryside

[Read more…]

Sceptics and believers – or, how to find a path through confounding variables in bilingualism research

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Parents often tend to be impressed by their children and I am certainly no exception. Today at the breakfast table my wife asked my 3-year old daughter what is in the spotty bag she was holding in her hands. My daughter’s answer was: “I am not entirely sure”. This made me speechless: not only because of the rather fancy word “entirely”, but also because suddenly I realised that this short sentence expresses something that I have been missing a lot in the recent “bilingualism debate”. [Read more…]

Sharing a language: bonding with some, excluding others?

Mimo CaenepeelDr. Mimo Caenepeel is the founder of Research Communication Scotland, which supports researchers in articulating their ideas clearly and effectively. Having grown up in Belgium, Mimo has lived in the US, Canada and France as well as Scotland. For more information, visit Mimo’s website.

I can get passionate about the advantages of bilingualism — not just the perceived advantages, but also the less-immediately-obvious advantages that are supported by solid research. Being bilingual feels enriching and has never held me back. Hearing ‘foreign languages’ (i.e. languages other than English) in Scotland or other English-speaking countries gives me a small but very real thrill, irrespective of whether I understand what is being said. Is it a good thing to be able to speak more than one language? The answer to that question feels like a no-brainer to me, if only because bilingualism turns out to be good for – amongst other things – the brain. [Read more…]