Two languages on the tip of your tongue

We’ve all had the experience of being sure that we know a word but struggling to remember it, no matter how hard we try. This sensation is called a ‘tip-of-the tongue state’, and researchers are interested in it because it can tell us more about how people bring to mind (or ‘retrieve’) words.

Research on bilingualism has looked at tip-of-the-tongue states, and one of the things that emerged from these studies is that bilingual speakers are more likely to experience such states than monolinguals. This is not due to a lack of vocabulary: bilinguals truly know the right word – they just find it harder to retrieve it. Why is that?

The research points to two reasons. First of all, if you hear a word more often, it will be easier to bring it to mind. If you speak two languages, you will inevitably hear words in both these languages less often than if you speak only one language. And secondly, bilingual speakers always ‘activate’ both languages while talking, which means that the two languages compete, and finding the right word might require… about twice as much effort!

In a recent study, two researchers from the University of Haifa looked at other factors that might affect tip-of-the-tongue states in bilinguals. The researchers were interested in whether the length of time speakers have been bilingual affects how quickly they can bring words to mind. People who became bilingual early in life will have encountered words in both their languages more often than people who became bilingual later on, and they will be more used to their languages ‘competing’. Does that mean that early bilinguals experience fewer tip-of-the-tongue states than late bilinguals? This was one thing the researchers wanted to explore.

The other thing the researchers wanted to look at was how ‘interference’ by a first language affects tip-of-the-tongue states in a second language. If I’m bilingual and have just heard a word in my first language, bringing to mind the translation-equivalent in my second language may be tougher because the equivalent words compete and somehow ‘get stuck’. If a second language is momentarily interspersed with a first one, does that affect tip-of-the-tongue states?

To explore all this, the researchers designed an experiment with speakers of Hebrew who were divided into three groups: (1) Russian-Hebrew bilinguals who had learnt Hebrew before the age of five (‘early bilinguals’); (2) Russian-Hebrew bilinguals who had learnt Hebrew after the age of 11 (‘late bilinguals’); and (3) Hebrew monolinguals.

People in all three groups were shown pictures and asked to name them in Hebrew. (The words they needed to come up with were uncommon words in Hebrew, to increase the likelihood of tip-of-the-tongue states). Next, participants were shown a video clip in Russian. And finally, they were asked to repeat the naming test, but with a different set of pictures.

After conducting the experiment, the researchers measured how many tip-of-the-tongue states occurred in each group and compared the numbers before and after the video clip. As expected, bilinguals experienced more tip-of-the-tongue states than monolinguals, but for early bilinguals this number was much lower than for late bilinguals. On top of that, all bilinguals showed an increase in tip-of-the-tongue states after watching the video clip in Russian. The researchers conclude from this that early exposure to a language makes it easier to retrieve words, and that interference by another language makes retrieval harder.

Interestingly, the Hebrew monolinguals also experienced more tip-of-the-tongue states after watching the Russian video clip. To make sure that this wasn’t due to boredom or tiredness, the researchers asked another group of monolinguals to do the same experiment, but with the video clip in Hebrew. This time, monolinguals did not experience more tip-of-the-tongue states after watching the video clip. That suggests that interference by another language has an impact even on people who do not speak the interfering language.

The study shows that language is a dynamic system that is affected by both short-term and long-term context. While this is particularly noticeable in bilinguals, monolinguals are also affected by language interference, and the sooner you learn a second language, the better you will be able to use both languages.

Kreiner, H., & Degani, T. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue in a second language: The effects of brief first-language exposure and long-term use. Cognition, 137, 106-114.