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The Bilingual Brain

The Bilingual Brain Americans often fail to realize that the ability to speak more than one language is the norm for most of the world.

This skill is the target of new research that seeks to learn how the human brain switches between languages.

And, are we able to seamlessly activate one language and disregard knowledge of other languages completely?

New research published in Psychological Science suggests humans are not actually capable of “turning off” another language entirely.

Psychologists Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, Robert Hartsuiker and Kevin Diependaele from Ghent University found that knowledge of a second language actually has a continuous impact on native-language reading.

The researchers selected 45 Ghent University students whose native language was Dutch and secondary language was English. The psychologists asked the students to read several sentences containing control words – plain words in their native language – and cognates.

Cognates are words that have a similar meaning and form across languages, often descending from the same ancient language; for example, “cold” is a cognate of the German word “kalt” since they both descended from Middle English.

While the students read the sentences, their eye movements were recorded and their fixation locations–that is, where in the sentence their eyes paused–were measured. The researchers found that the students looked a shorter period of time at the cognates than at the controls.

So in the example sentence “Ben heeft een oude OVEN/LADE gevonden tussen de rommel op zolder” (Ben found an old OVEN/DRAWER among the rubbish in the attic), the bilingual students read over “oven” more quickly than “lade.”

According to the psychologists, it is the overlap of the two languages that speeds up the brain’s activation of cognates. So even though participants did not need to use their second language to read in their native language, they still were unable to simply “turn it off.”

It appears, then, that not only is a second language always active, it has a direct impact on reading another language–even when the reader is more proficient in one language than another.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

The Bilingual Brain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). The Bilingual Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
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