Bilinguals Single Out Second Language While Reading

Reading and speaking in a second language can be difficult, especially when the second language was learned later in life. However, a new study in Cognition shows that bilinguals who are highly proficient in their second language can not only overcome those difficulties, but can thrive in their second language and engage in reading strategies just like their monolingual peers. The study focused on students with a high level of proficiency, such as international students who have come to the U.S. to study higher education.

The study focused on prediction errors between 24 English monolinguals and 28 Chinese-English bilinguals. The participants read sentences in English while their EEG was recorded. The sentences were set up so that the participants had to predict a missing word. For example, in the sentence “She has a nice voice and always wanted to be (a singer/an artist), the word singer would be the accurate prediction given the context clues.

The researchers found that monolinguals have difficulty making the predictions when they came across unexpected words. On the other hand, researchers found that bilingual participants were able to predict more accurately when they were able to regulate their native language. The study suggests that bilinguals solve basic language problems in more complicated ways: by both determining what new words mean, and by regulating their native language when reading a second language.

Researcher Megan Zirnstein told Science Daily, The ability to regulate the native language when immersed in a second language environment can support the prediction process when reading in the non-native language. We argue in our paper that the mechanisms engaged during prediction in native and non-native languages are fundamentally the same, and that what differs for bilinguals are the additional demands imposed by their language experience and language use. Using production fluency measures, we were able to capture how capable the bilinguals were at bringing the activation of their dominant Mandarin up and down in a way that benefitted them when using English. Their ability to do this is crucial for freeing up resources to be able to predict when reading in English, their second language.”

“We went in thinking second-language readers may not be able to predict the way monolinguals do,” she added. “But when we take into account that some bilinguals are very skilled at negotiating the environmental and linguistic pressures that are exerted on them, we can see that their ability and brain activity in their second language mimics that of monolinguals. In other words, some bilinguals can comprehend in their second language just as well as monolinguals do.”


  1. Your phrase: “bilinguals who are highly proficient in their second language can not only overcome those difficulties but can thrive in their second language” is ambiguous because the people who are highly proficient in their second language do not need to overcome any difficulties to thrive in the second language.

    It was known for two decades that when an adult is proficient in a second language it means that he or she formed a new language center in his/her brain and when he or she is using the second language it acts similar to monolinguals.

    Another example, when a simultaneous interpreter is interpreting from the native language to a second language he visualizes what is said in his native language and describes his vision in the second language. No direct translation takes place in simultaneous interpretation! Brain activity in their second language is identical to that of monolinguals, providing they are proficient in their second language.

    It would be extremely interesting and valuable if you could provide the answer to the question why only five percent of the adult population becomes proficient in a second language and the rest is failing in this effort.

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