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What bilinguals tell us about language and the mind. Judith F. Kroll Department of Psychology Program in Linguistics Center for Language Science Pennsylvania State University University Park, PA 16803. NSF Workshop on A Science of Broadening Participation June 23, 2008.

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what bilinguals tell us about language and the mind

What bilinguals tell us about language and the mind

Judith F. Kroll

Department of Psychology

Program in Linguistics

Center for Language Science

Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16803

NSF Workshop on A Science of Broadening Participation

June 23, 2008




  • Teresa Bajo
  • Susan Bobb
  • Cari Bogulski
  • Kate Cheng
  • Ingrid Christoffels
  • Dorothee Chwilla
  • Albert Costa
  • Annette De Groot
  • Franziska Dietz
  • Ton Dijkstra
  • Giuli Dussias
  • Chip Gerfen
  • Tamar Gollan
  • David Green
  • Taomei Guo
  • Noriko Hoshino
  • April Jacobs
  • Niels Janssen
  • Debra Jared
  • Wido La Heij
  • Jared Linck
  • Pedro Macizo
  • Erica Michael
  • Natasha Miller
  • Maya Misra
  • Scott Payne
  • Pilar Piñar
  • Tyler Phelps
  • Carmen Ruiz
  • Rosa Sánchez-Casas
  • Mikel Santesteban
  • Herbert Schriefers
  • Ana Schwartz
  • Bianca Sumutka
  • Gretchen Sunderman
  • Natasha Tokowicz
  • Madelon Van Den Boer
  • Janet Van Hell
  • Zofia Wodniecka

Research Support:

  • NSF Grants, BCS-0111734 and BCS-0418071
  • NSF Dissertation Grants to Sunderman, Schwartz, Hoshino, and Bobb
  • NIH Grants MH62479 and R56HD053146; NIH Fellowship F33HD055003
  • Open Project Grant at State Key Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning,

Beijing Normal University, China

  • NSF Advance Leadership Award for Women in Cognitive Science, BCS-0317678 with
  • Suparna Rajaram and Randi Martin

More people in the world are bilingual than monolingual.

But until very recently, most research on language and cognition

examined only monolingual speakers of a single language and

typically speakers of English as the native language.


Some reasons are more positive than self defense…

Current research suggests that both of a bilingual’s languages are active regardless of the intention or requirement to use one language alone.

The parallel activity of the two languages is hypothesized to produce competition.

Skilled bilinguals rarely make the error of speaking the wrong language yet they often code switch with other similar bilinguals in the middle of a sentence, suggesting that they possess an exquisite mechanism of cognitive control.

A life of resolving cross-language competition appears to confer positive consequences for cognitive function.

Bilingualism provides a lens for researchers to examine aspects of the underlying cognitive architecture that are obscured by native language skill when investigating language performance in the first or dominant language only.


Dutch-English speaker



The bilingual is a expert mental juggler


A research program on bilingual language processing:

1. How do adult language learners establish representations in the L2 and how

do those representations change with increasing skill? Why do some adults

find it easy to learn a second language and others difficult?

2. Is it possible for bilinguals to switch off one of the two languages to use the

other? If not, how is the parallel activation of the two languages manifest in

comprehension and production?

3. What linguistic properties and cognitive abilities modulate the activity of

the bilingual’s two languages to allow the intended language to be selected?

4. To what extent is language processing in the L2 determined by structural

constraints imposed by the L1 or by the availability of cognitive resources?

5. What are the consequences of bilingualism for language representation and

processing and more generally for cognition?


Approach and Methods

  • Who are the bilinguals we study?
  • We adopt a broad definition of bilingualism to include all individuals who use more
  • than one language regularly. We distinguish bilingual groups with respect to their
  • proficiency in the L2, their relative language dominance, the age of acquisition,
  • and the degree to which the context of language use supports each of the two languages.
  • What languages?

Unless a study requires that we exploit the properties of a particular language pair

(e.g., script differences in Japanese and English), we examine many different

bilingual groups (e.g., native English speakers at different levels of proficiency in

Spanish, French, or German, Spanish-English, French-English, German-English,

Dutch-English, Japanese-English, and Chinese-English bilinguals, and deaf readers

of English who use ASL to communicate).

  • Methods

Behavioral: Response times, accuracy, eye-tracking, acoustic properties of speech

Neurocognitive: Event-related potentials

  • Contexts

Classroom vs. immersed learners

Bilinguals in their L1 vs. L2 environment in the US, Europe, and Asia*


Talk Outline

  • Illustrate the empirical research that reveals the presence of cross-language activity, its resolution, and the consequences for cognition more generally
  • Consider the consequence of assuming that bilinguals are the norm for cognitive and linguistic research rather than the exception
  • Discuss ways to increase the diversity of participation in research in environments that offer little diversity themselves

Back to the juggler…

Reading Speaking


Dutch-English reader

“bike” “beek”

Dutch-English speaker




Exploit the presence of cross-language ambiguity:

  • Interlingual cognates:
  • hotel (English)- hotel (means hotel in Dutch)
  • Interlingual homographs (false friends):
  • room (English)- room (means cream in Dutch)
  • If a bilingual can function as two monolinguals in one, then
  • performance in one language alone should be independent
  • of the sense of meaning of the word in the other language.
  • Result: Bilinguals are typically faster to recognize cognates
  • but slower to recognize false friends; these effects can be seen
  • in the native language as well as the L2. It is not possible to
  • simply switch off one of the two languages.

The phonology of the language not in use modulates the

time to read words in each language.

Cognates with identical/similar orthography but similar or different phonology:

Schwartz, Kroll, & Diaz (2007): Out-of-context facilitation for naming cognates in L2 when the phonology converges from L1 to L2: But the same result for reading in the dominant L1.


Does reading in sentence context reduce or eliminate

the effects of cross-language competition?

Perhaps the inability to switch off one of the two languages only occurs in

the absence of meaningful sentence context.

Schwartz & Kroll (2006): Take words that have been shown to elicit activation of both languages and put them in full sentence context.

Cognates with identical/similar orthography but similar or different phonology:








Who ran home?



RSVP: Method for naming words in sentence context



Follow along with sentence.

Say red word out loud.

Answer questions when asked.

RSVP: Rapid Serial Visual Presentation


Does the facilitation for naming cognates disappear in

sentence context? If the sentence provides a cue to language

membership, then no cognate effects should be observed.


Result: When bilinguals read,

sentence constraint but not language

per se eliminates the cognate effect (Schwartz & Kroll, 2006)


Naming in the L2


Dutch-English speaker



We can ask the same question about speaking


Logic: force both languages to be active and to ask whether there are

consequences. If both languages are normally active, then forcing them

to be active should not disrupt spoken performance.

Cued picture naming: Language of naming depends on an auditory cue

(Kroll, Dijkstra, Janssen, & Schriefers, in preparation)


Tone cue

Spoken name



High tone

Low tone







Cost of Language Mixing in Cued Picture Naming:

Dutch-English Bilinguals (Kroll et al., in preparation)

Speaking the L2

is independent of

the requirement

to have L1

active as well

These results suggest that L1 is normally active during lexicalization into the L2. Requiring L1 to be active does not affect L2 picture naming performance.


In a recent study (Guo, Misra, Kroll, & Bobb, in preparation) we have

extended this investigation to examine the time course of cross-language

activation using event-related potentials (ERPs)




Block order effects for Chinese-English Bilinguals

switching the language of production


Many studies demonstrate persistent activity of the L1 in using the L2,

not only at the level of the lexicon but also for the grammar. They show

further that the L1 becomes sensitive to the influence of the L2.

Dussias (2003): How do the structural commitments of one language influence

the processing of the other language?

Peter fell in love with the daughter of the psychologist who studied in California.

Who studied in California?

Native English speakers: the psychologist

Native Spanish speakers: the daughter

Critical result: Native Spanish speakers immersed in an English dominant

environment begin to parse sentences in Spanish, their native language, like

English, their L2!

The interaction between the two languages suggest a high degree of plasticity.


Can bilinguals exploit language cues and context

to minimize cross-language influences?

Either a bike or a fiets?

More likely to be a

a fiets than a bike?

Even more likely to be

a fiets?

Definitely Dutch!


Consequences of bilingualism for language and cognitive processing

For development: L2 skill modulates the activation of the translation

equivalent in L1 but there is activation of lexical form relatives for even

highly proficient bilinguals (Sunderman & Kroll, 2006). These effects can be

observed not only in speakers of languages that share the same alphabet but also in different script languages (e.g., Chinese and English) and in deaf

signers who use American sign language to communicate but read in English.

For L1: Not only L2, but also L1 changes with increased L2 skill and

by the nature of the context in which the L2 is acquired and maintained

(Kroll et al., 2002; Kroll et al., 2006; Linck & Kroll, in preparation).

For cognitive skill: The requirement to negotiate the competition across

the two languages places demands on working memory resources and

enhances the attentional abilities of skilled bilinguals (Kroll et al., 2002;

Tokowicz, Michael, & Kroll, 2004)


What is the consequence of parallel activity and competition

  • across the bilingual’s two languages?
  • Bilingualism may confer a specific set of cognitive benefits
  • to executive function and attention.
  • Bilingualism may offer protection against the normal declines in
  • attentional control associated with aging.

Bialystok et al. (2005):Older bilinguals outperform age-matched

monolingual counterparts on non-linguistic measures of

inhibitory control.

Bialystok et al. (2007): Bilingualism delays on the onset of

dementia by four years.


Increasing the breadth of participation in environments

that offer little diversity themselves: Creating collaborative

networks for research and training

Leiden, The Netherlands

Penn State





Penn State’s Center for Language Science: http://www.lsrg.psu.edu


Benefits of collaborative networks for research and training:

Data collection (in both directions: we assist our colleagues

who work in locations in which bilingualism is more prevalent

by providing monolingual controls)

2. Professional development for graduate students: Visit host

laboratories, give research talks, interact with research mentors,

acquire complementary technical skills, establish an international

network of young researchers

3. Exchanges in both directions: Steady stream of visitors

increases diversity at the home institution

Diversity breeds diversity: Undergraduate research students

who are themselves bilingual are likely to seek out research

opportunities in this context