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Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics

Language processing is a dynamic process that involves just one language at

a moment in time and several languages at other moments. The position
that has been prominent in recent years is that the bilingual's languages are
all active, and hence intervene, even though only one is being used. But this
is simply too broad a conclusion and we now know that the reality is much
more subtle than that.
Depending on the context, both linguistic and environmental, the
interlocutors, the main language being used (is it the stronger language?) as
well as a series of methodological considerations present in experimental
settings, it has become apparent that either only one language is involved in
such activities as speaking, listening or reading, or several languages can be.
A related issue, but more closely linked to language knowledge, is that the
bilingual's languages influence one another in a permanent way. It has been
known for a long time that a stronger language will influence the weaker
language at the level of pronunciation and grammar (see here). However, we
now know that this is also the case at all other levels of language. Thus,
Temple University researcher Aneta Pavlenko, among others, has clearly
shown that conceptual transfers exist also at the level of meaning. This can
be seen, for instance, when certain types of Russian-English bilinguals (e.g.
childhood bilinguals whose L2 English affects their L1 Russian), speaking
Russian, call handleless paper containers a "chashka", influenced by English
"cup", whereas native speakers of Russian would call it a "stakan" (glass).

Another aspect is that as a second language is used increasingly, processing

strategies and operations change from those largely based on the first
language to those normally used with the second language. But for some
aspects it may be too late depending on when the person became bilingual.
For example, Delphine Guillelmon and I have shown that even though late
English-French bilinguals may make very few gender errors when speaking
French (e.g. saying "la bateau" instead of "le bateau"), as listeners they
cannot make use of the "le" / "la" cue to activate maculine or feminine nouns
in their internal lexicon and hence facilitate their comprehension. Thus, there
is no time difference in their recognition of "bateau" when preceded by
erroneous "la" or correct "le". It is as if they are perceptually blind to this

One interesting point that translators and interpreters have long been aware
of without benefiting from research evidence is that translation pairs
generally do not share meanings completely. Aneta Pavlenko's 2009 model of
lexical organization in bilinguals reflects this. It also integrates the fact that
conceptual representations can be completely language-specific. This means
that some words in one of the bilingual's languages cannot be translated by
means of a single word in the other language and requires a circumlocution
instead. Thus, for example, words such as "frustration" and "privacy" have
no ready equivalent in Russian.
At the level of the bilingual brain, Ping Li bases himself on imaging studies to
argue that there is no simple answer as to whether common or distinct
neural systems underlie the representation or processing of the bilingual's
languages. A number of variables such as age of acquisition of a language,
proficiency in the language, cross-language overlap between the bilingual's
languages, levels of analysis, and so on, seem to modulate the functional
activities of the bilingual brain.
Admittedly, the psycholinguistics of bilingualism is still a rather new field as
compared to better established domains (the word "psycholinguistics" was
coined some sixty years ago only). It contains areas hardly touched upon
such as the impact of the functions of the bilingual's languages. It will be
interesting in the years to come to examine the processing and cognitive
consequences of the fact that bilinguals use different languages in different
domains of life, for different purposes and with different people (see here).
Another issue concerns biculturalism; some bilinguals are bicultural whereas
others are not (see here) and this will have an impact on the experimental
and imaging findings that are obtained.
This said, and as we show in our book, much has already been accomplished
by dedicated psycholinguists throughout the world. May many other
discoveries about the bilingual mind and brain be made in the future!

Franois Grosjean & Ping Li (2013). The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism (link
is external). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. (With contributions by Ellen
Bialystok and Raluca Barac, Annette M. B. de Groot, Rosa M. Manchn and
Virginia Yip).

Aneta Pavlenko (ed.; 2009). The Bilingual Mental Lexicon: Interdisciplinary

Approaches. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.