How daily exposure affects understanding in a second language

Research Summary by Carine Abraham

In our everyday lives, we react and are affected by the events which occur around us. While developing and growing, we not only learn how to act in various situations, such as not falling off the couch or avoiding getting stung by bees, but we also learn what kind of words or phrases, even what language, to use at different times. Researchers have long been looking into what affects our ability to learn a second language. There are now signs that the amount someone uses a second language, and the amount of exposure they have to that language, may actually benefit using both their first and their second language.

Dominance in one particular language for a bilingual is usually thought of in terms of how much better they speak one of their languages. Previously, research found that the difference in a speaker’s strength in the languages they speak can either increase or decrease the amount of time it takes to switch between those languages. For bilinguals switching between languages (whether it’s English to Spanish or Japanese to French), having to ignore or remember information in the correct language for a conversation is constantly occurring.

For a long time, it had been thought that the speed to correctly choose the right word in the right language was linked to the difference in the strength of each language. However, a study from the University of Edinburgh, has shown that there are most likely other factors affecting the speed between switching languages.

In this new study, researchers looked at many aspects of the bilingual experience to see if how “good” a speaker was in a language is the only factor that affects speakers’ switching powers, or if other factors, such as the age they began learning their languages and the amount they use and hear the languages each day, play a hand in this process.

To help answer this question, the researchers created a task where bilingual speakers named different objects, such as a pair of glasses or a river, in either their first or second language, occasionally switching back and forth between the two languages. After testing 83 speakers, who were either high proficiency Italian-English or Italian-Sardinian bilinguals, the researchers found that the strength of the speakers’ languages was not the only factor that affected the speed of the participants to switch between their languages, but both daily use and the age of learning did as well.

While it has been known that the age someone begins to learn a language benefits certain parts of language learning, the finding in this study showing that increased daily use of a second language helps in switching between languages is an exciting discovery. So, if you’re now learning a new language, or trying to brush up on one you already speak, try to use it as much as you can.

Language experience modulates bilingual language control: The effect of proficiency, age of acquisition, and exposure on language switching” by Michela Bonfieni, Holly P. Branigan, Martin J.Pickering & Antonella Sorace