Liza Olkhova

Processing of a non-native language by bilinguals: a study by Zirnstein et al.

By Liza Olkhova

When you are learning a foreign language, you are bound to come across unknown  words or even expressions in text or speech. From my personal experience, it acts as a great learning tool, as you are sometimes able to assign a meaning to the unknown word based on the context. While reading a text it is not surprising that people usually predict the upcoming words based on their fluency and past experiences, aiding the cognitive processing.

Bilingualism is often considered to be advantageous to cognitive abilities. It is also believed that bilinguals’ reading skills are different to those of monolinguals, however a study published in Cognition has challenged this notion. The study sought to compare both monolingual and bilingual students recruited from Pennsylvania State University, USA, and has demonstrated that bilinguals are able to exploit strategies to predict upcoming words judging from the sentence context in a similar way when compared to their monolingual peers. For example, a sentence that was used in the study ‘After their meal, they forgot to leave a tip for the waitress’. In this sentence the predicted word would be ‘tip’, but the unexpected word used by researchers would be ‘ten’.  Zirnstein and others used electroencephalography technique (EEG) to measure brain electrical changes picked up by multiple electrodes sitting on the surface of the skull. Scientists were able to link some of the changes to the brain’s response to prediction error. The area that appeared most active when the word was different from the one predicted by study participants was the frontal cortex, crucial for decision making and other executive functions.

The results depended on language fluency as well as the inhibitory control of bilinguals. This means people who can speak at least two languages need to engage in dynamic shifts in executive functions to control both languages by constantly switching between activating one and suppressing another. Bilinguals may either disengage from one language when it may interfere with the other or activate it to aid in another.  In my opinion as a person fluent in Russian and English languages, this is also true. If I come across a scientific text written in Russian it poses a more demanding task to read compared to when it is written in English, probably because I am much more immersed in scientific content entirely written in English. In the former example, activation of my second language, English, when reading a word ‘mitochondrion’ (‘митохондрия’) in Russian as it is a similar word achieves cross-language support. On the contrary, by inhibiting English language when reading Russian for ‘cerebellum’ (‘мозжечок’) as it an entirely different word prevents cross-language interference.

Zirnstein M, van Hell J, Kroll J. Cognitive control ability mediates prediction costs in monolinguals and bilinguals. Cognition. 2018;176:87-106.

If you would like to find out more about the original study, head to

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