Bilingual brain translates in an instant

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) —The bilingual brain is able to process two languages automatically without forethought, even when they are very different.

More than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language but up to now it has not been clear how the two interact when the languages are dissimilar, unlike pairs of European languages which share the same alphabetical characters and even words.

A new study, published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that Chinese people who speak English fluently translate English into Chinese without ever thinking about the process.

“Earlier research in European languages has found that both languages stayed active in the brain. But that work was in pairs of languages, like English and Dutch, which have a lot of similarities in spelling and vocabulary.

“That’s not true for English and Chinese,” says University of Nottingham PhD student Taoli Zhang, who, like all the volunteers in the study, is originally from China, but lives in the UK and is fluent in English.

For the study, each person was shown pairs of English words. The first word flashed on the computer screen so quickly (for just 59 milliseconds) that the person didn’t realize they had seen it. The second word appeared for longer; the person was supposed to hit a key indicating whether it was a real English word as quickly as possible. This was simply a test to see how quickly they were processing the word.

But the test had a clever trick to it which would shed light on whether the bilingual volunteer accessed their Chinese words.

Although everything in the test was in English, in some cases, the two words actually had a connection—but only if the subject knew how they are written in Chinese. So, for example, the first word might be “thing” which is written 东西 in Chinese, and the second might be “west” which is written 西 in Chinese. The character for “west” appears in the word “thing” but these two words are totally unrelated in English.

When two words shared characters in Chinese, participants processed the second word faster—even though they had no conscious knowledge of having seen the first word in the pair.

Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.

“This research shows that reading words in a second language is influenced by the native language through automatic and very fast word translation in the bilingual brain,” says Walter van Heuven, lecturer in psychology.

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