“You might think bilingual people would
have a verbal salad—that they’d have a
mishmash of words that come out of their
mouths,” Olson says. “If people speak two or
more languages, why is this not confusing?”
Olson is exploring this question first by
trying to understand how long it takes for a
bilingual person to make the switch.
He shows bilingual test subjects a screen
with four photos and then says something
like, “Let’s go to the house.” Olson can measure
the amount of time it takes a person’s eyes to
unconsciously move to the photo of the house.
But he can also say, “Let’s go to the casa.”
In that case, the Spanish word for house is
unexpected at the end of an English sentence,
and it will take longer for the person’s eyes to
move toward the photo of the house.
The difference between the two is the
amount of time it takes for a person’s brain
to perceive and process a switch in language.
And it’s a short amount of time—fractions
of a second in many cases. That’s because
people don’t actually turn off a language. They
simply power it down when they don’t think it
will be needed.
“You make one language more or less
accessible instead of turning them on or
off,” Olson says. “It’s sort of like adjusting a
dimmer switch. It’s the same mechanism that
allows us to study in a crowded coffee shop.
If you’re speaking a language, you have to
inhibit the other languages.”
That inhibition can change based on
a number of variables, Olson is finding. If
a bilingual, native English speaker in the
earlier boardroom scenario is expecting
English, Spanish doesn’t have to be dimmed
much at all. But when focusing on Spanish, a
second language, English has to be dimmed
significantly so that the brain can translate
and process the Spanish words. When
reverting back to English, the inhibition
dimmer switch has further to go to reach full
power again, allowing the brain to switch
languages, so the change takes longer.
“If your native language is really strong,
you have to exercise a lot of inhibition to be in
the second language,” Olson says.
In another experiment, Olson found that
our minds can start to make those switches
subconsciously. Students going on a study
abroad trip to Spain were given a different
Ways We Make Sense of Multiple Languages CONTINUED FROM PAGE 3
type of picture test in which they were asked
to name pictures while switching into either
English or Spanish, and their reaction times
were recorded. Their reaction times were
different immediately before leaving the
United States and shortly after arriving
“We assigned the exact same task, but
students’ brains had already started to shift
towards Spanish dominance because they
were in Spain, although they hadn’t actually
improved yet in terms of grammar or
pronunciation,” he says.
New speech habits
In English, the letter sounds for G and CK are
distinctly different. When they end words in
Russian, however, they make the same CK
sound. If the words “bag” and “back” were
Russian, they would be difficult to tell apart.
When Russian speakers learn English, they
mispronounce a word like “bag.” But once
they become proficient in English, even using
English more predominantly than their native
tongue, they can correct that pronunciation.
If they switch back to speaking Russian,
they often take those English pronunciations
with them, making their Russian language
sound subtly but consistently more English-like. And some linguists might even declare
that this language attrition, as it’s called,
pollutes the language.
But Olga Dmitrieva sees it differently.
Where some see an impurity, she sees our
brains subconsciously making helpful
tradeoffs. “The way native languages are
spoken in expatriate communities has a
purpose. Shifts toward a second language
in first-language pronunciation are not just
random signs of deterioration,” Dmitrieva
says. “I want to show that this is a completely
normal process, and that there may be certain
Dmitrieva points out that a majority
of the people in the world are bilingual or
Chad Lersch undergoes testing to measure how quickly his eyes move to a picture while listening
to language switches in either English (his native language) or Spanish (his second language).
Over 1000 measurements are taken each second. Photo by Daniel Olson.