Educación, Psicología & Ciencia

Cognitive Processing in Bilinguals: Mi experiencia

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If you read, you will find out two things at first sight, especially if English is your mother tongue. First, you will notice that I am an adult, probably a woman (due to my expression) and then, you will realize that English is not my first language. So, it´s true! – A few months ago, I started to study myself; the way how I process an opaque language (English) and how it affects to the way I process and learn information in this language and others.

Bilingualism: Is Galician Language reigning in my brain?


«Las Mariscadoras» de Luis Seoane (Buenos Aires)

Due to the geographical situation of my Home Town, between two countries and where two official languages are recognized, I am bilingual and I´ve been instructed in a 50%- 50% balance.

Nevertheless, I suppose that this condition is almost impossible, it seems like one language needs to be the “queen”.

In my case, I dream in Galician: L1 Galician, L2 Spanish and also exposed to a L3 which is Portuguese, and trying to learn a L4, English (and past experience in L5, French).
Complete Bilingualism is hard because it means that a person had been exposed to 2 languages to (2,2,2…?) the same extent. We get this condition once we read books, attend classes, speak at home, watch TV, learn and memorize in two languages, brainstorming and problem solving… everything in two languages.
By using the language at home and being exposed to literature in both languages we became bilinguals, and that´s why our region can result very interesting in this kind of studies.
Galician and Spanish are reigning together in my brain because the use of both languages became automatic and I can shift between them with any effort. They work together in my brain in one unique system.

Do kids lose efficiency while learning a L2?


Mercedes Ruibal (Escuela Gallega de Buenos Aires)

This question was present during all my childhood at school. Maybe it was more linked to ideological, political and moral commitment issues than pure linguistics.

The old educational model defended that a person who has two languages is strange and different from a normal person.

This perspective defended that bilingualism cause a cognitive deficiency in processing the L2 (Spanish), so this double instruction would cause less efficiency and less speed during the learning process.
When we learn a second language, we commit working memory, short-term memory and another type of cognitive processes. The tasks demand a higher cognitive effort until getting automatic.

Not everybody who lives in our region became pure bilinguals. I realized about this during my first experience at Hospital (Neuropsychology Unit), where I assessed people applying different neuropsychological tests. Elderly people from villages (less exposed to the Spanish language) scored much less in memory tests (which are always in Spanish, not Galician) due to this condition. This opens a door about how neuropsychological assessment should be done. We observe the same RT (reaction time) in children at Local Schools, who are less exposed to vocabulary in Spanish (memory lists), but the effect is much less evident (probably due to instruction effects).

Every cost is balanced with the gain: Two languages! Three languages! FIVE!

Knowing a second language extends our capacities. A person who speaks multiple languages has access to multiple experiences and environments; this is how English changed my mind. Being able to travel around the world and speak in different languages, to understand the another´s culture and integrate it with own ´s view of the world; it changes the architecture of the mind.

What happens in our mind when we learn a L3 language? Executive Functions

We experience troubles while finding the right word in the right language (above all if we feel tired); sometimes we apply the syntax from one language to another (it´s happening all the time from Spanish to English), and the pronunciation, (phonetics) tend to be weak, it´s much harder if we learn a language being adults. I guess that syntax and phonetics are the harder processes.


An example:

Teñome que levantar antes das 7, e preparar o almorzo se cadra lévame mais tempo porque a avena non (shift) y entonces preparé la maleta con los informes para ir a la oficina y ese día tenia universidad (shift) I should write an email and also call to my friend (shift) Bo día! – ¿tiña cita vostede hoxe? (shift) Working Memory and Attention (article review) (shift) Obrigada! (shift) ¿A qué hora sales para tomar el café? (shift) Enviolle as respostas antes do medio día.

This is an example about how information runs across our minds, verbal, self-talk, social interactions, TV, radio and personal messages, reading, phone calls in four languages.
– Crazy, right?

Bilingual brains and multiple languages brains rely on Executive Functions to maintain the balance in different languages. We use regulatory systems, as attention, inhibition and task-switching. The different languages systems are always active and competing every time we speak or listen, and the responsible connections in the brain change with training (frontal lobes), influencing attention and conflict management.

– In terms of neuropsychology, multiple languages are health/medicine/wellness for the brain!

Bilingualism: Consequences for the mind, brain and individuals

– The effort brings recompenses!


María Antonia Dans (Onza dos Rios)

There is a current debate about Languages at School, so I wrote a list describing why (in my opinion) we should keep multilingual contexts in our schools.

1. The beneficial effect of bilingualism on children´s cognitive development.
2. Bilingualism has proved to protect the brain against cognitive decline (“cognitive reserve”) Gymnastics!
3. Bilingualism has proved to accelerate the development of a general cognitive function concerned with attention and inhibition.
4. Bilinguals are more sensitive to semantic relations between words, while analyzing a sentence structure and show a GREAT social sensibility. We also observe a great de-codification in people who learn languages, and somehow they start to understand better other languages… Isn´t awesome?
5. L2, L3, L4… facilitate cross-cultural communication… and the world needs communication!
6. L2, L3, L4… offer practical, intellectual and many, many aspirational benefits (job prospects).
7. Simply, a new language opens up a world of NEW opportunities.
8. Languages open up your mind and put things into different perspectives regarding the different cultures of the world… and the world needs understanding!
9. While learning a 2º or 3 º language, we tend to understand and use better our first language(s).
10. We have access to literature, music, films and a greater understanding of the history and culture.

Research shows that our behavior (in bilinguals) depends on the language of operation. «People afirm they feel like a different person while using different languages». We also tend to be more rational and practical in a second language

Languages are an extremely satisfying achievement


… And Affect the WAY we THINK!

It would be a pleasure to know your opinion about this topic

Grazas pola lectura/ Gracias por leer/ Thanks for reading/ Obrigada! 🙂

Marian V, Spivey M. Bilingual and monolingual processing of competing lexical items. Applied Psycholinguistics. 2003;24(2):173–193.

Bialystok E, Craik FI, Luk G. Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2012;16(4):240–250

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Autor: Lorena Álvarez

Psicóloga, activista, trotamundos y una apasionada por la ciencia y las letras.

9 pensamientos en “Cognitive Processing in Bilinguals: Mi experiencia

  1. Great post! 🙂 I would like to have a talk with you about HOW do you think we access to the lexicon in different languages (because I study this «weird» thing also).


  2. It´s a matter of IQ
    high IQ, high language capacity

    you must have a «big» brain 😀
    i will send you my papers

    • Tomas,

      Maybe IQ is related … but why not talking about «the cognitive processes underlying this intelligence». Anyway, I used to have a colleague who talked all the time about IQ 😀 and the brain size….

      Thanks man! Send your articles, I have my glasses close by…

  3. Profe! 🙂 das moita cañita, pero sabemos que o fas polo noso ben.
    Xa traducimos co google!

  4. However, if the RT increases the learning process is much difficult right?
    Maybe it´s too much for kids………..

  5. Yes, I guess… while learning the L2, we´ll need more time during the learning process, the working memory system would be slower, and also bringing stuff from long term memory and memorizing… but until the L2 gets automatized; with practice we can almost get L1=L2 in terms of processing. About kids, they have an awesome potential for learning, and «above all language acquisition», with such plasticity in the neurons… it´s not challenging for them! – but of course, it´s a long term process and depends on practice, instruction and individual differences.

    Thanks for the suggestion Tomas Dan 🙂
    Best regards

  6. I speak 4 languages in total, Serbian being my native language, I also speak English, Spanish and Italian. In my case, L1 would be Serbian, L2 English, L3 Spanish and L4 Italian.I was taught English and Italian in school, I started learning English in third grade and Italian in 5th grade of elementary school. I learned Spanish completely on my own. I guess at the beginning I didn’t have a special reason for learning languages. My interest in English increased after taking a course, I guess it was because I got better at it and my performance in school got better to. I remember I liked the book we used at the course more than the one in regular classes, it had stories and drawings and it was more fun to learn languages in that way, it kept me interested longer than regular lessons. What made me love Italian was my teacher, we had a young teacher and she was really dedicated and warm with all of us, everybody loved her, when our teacher changed, I was still good at learning, but I wasn’t as interested. In the middle of that, I started learning Spanish. When I was a kid, Latin American soap operas were popular, after watching them for a while I realized I understood everything they were saying without having to look at the subtitles. After that, I started searching online for songs, song lyrics, series, movies, poetry and texts in Spanish, even newspapers, everything that was in Spanish was super interesting to me, whenever I’d find something new I’d feel excited. I asked my brother to buy me a Spanish dictionary for my birthday and I was sooo excited when I got a massive dictionary. What a nerd 🙂
    I find it easier to express my feelings and thoughts directly in English, I guess I am more straightforward when I speak in English, in my language I often find it hard to say things exactly the way they are, in English it’s easier. When it comes to Spanish, I always say it brings out my pathetic side, I’m cursi in Spanish 🙂 My friends also tell me I sound cute in Spanish and sexy in English. And one of the reasons I didn’t get pass the intermediate level of Italian is because I think Spanish and Italian are so similar, so I get confused when speaking Italian. But I do understand mostly everything in all of the songs I’ve listened, I can watch a movie in Italian without subtitles and I won’t understand everything, but most of it, yes.
    I sometimes think all of the languages I learn helped me get to know myself better, through learning languages I figured out I’m not one dimensional, I have layers and different traits of personality, and all of them combined make who I am as a person. I am also more outgoing and self confident when I speak foreign languages, maybe it is because I already know I’m good at it.
    My advice for everyone learning or teaching languages is to think about the methodology, I learned the most when I didn’t even realize I was learning. Don’t approach it as a task, but as a past time, hobby, something you enjoy, see the mistakes and failures as an opportunity to grow and soon you’ll be a polyglot! During one period of time, I was giving English lessons to a kid and I would give him a treat every time he’d try to do an exercise and make a mistake, explaining him that it doesn’t matter if he does not get it right from the first time, what matters is he’s trying and he’s engaged and interested in learning. His mother told me two months ago he won the second place in the National competition in English for high school students! Don’t be afraid of talking even if you’re not perfect at it, the important thing is to be able to communicate, a wrongly written/said word is what matters the least.

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