How bilinguals switch between tongues

Bilingualism is a topic which interests me, and it’s been mentioned on this blog in my entry language and the brain and Caroline and Daniel’s second language acquisition and bilingual language processing. Now Xavier has sent me a link to an excellent article called Tongue-tied: When bilinguals switch languages involuntarily, which mentions case studies that

support the notion that, in bilinguals, specific regions at the front of the left hemisphere act as a language switch.


By | 2016-10-18T15:49:56+00:00 May 21st, 2007|Language|12 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Tony May 21, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Having read the pieces you link to, and re-read your original post on Language and the Brain—and all the comments—I am more than ever filled with admiration for simultaneous interpreters. I first marvelled at their accomplishment during the years when I spent much time facing a row of them them in their little glass cubicles, with one language going into their earphones while they spoke another into their microphones.
    Presumably the fags hanging out of their mouths (this was years ago) did not call for the engagement of a third part of their brains.

  2. Josep Tarrés May 21, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    I’m not sure if they call “bilinguals” to everybody who’s able to speak in two languages, or only to those who have two “mother tongues”.
    Anyone can learn a language, but just a few “adquire” more than one language as native.

  3. Victor Dewsbery May 22, 2007 at 8:05 am

    The “switch” theory certainly fits my use of my two languages (native English and acquired but near-near-native German). And at a meeting with similarly bilingual colleagues this last weekend, it also fits with the way our informal conversation drifted between the languages – almost every thread of the conversation seemed to continue in the language in which it started, and when someone used a phrase from the “other” language, this was invariably introduced by a pause or change of tone which could be taken to signify quotation marks.

  4. Olli May 22, 2007 at 9:50 am

    The “switch” theory means changing between two languages, but not using both at the same time. Do you believe it is possible? I mean, I have tried to think at the same time in English and Spanish, but no way. Any of you was able to make this? (and not fry its brain? XD).

  5. céline May 22, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Tony: smoking in a tiny booth? ewwww
    Josep: good point, but then the “what does it mean to be truly bilingual?” debate has been raging on for years.
    Victor: this fits with Caroline’s post, which describes how both languages can be activated at the same time.
    Olli: I suggest you read Caroline’s post, which describes the brain’s capacity to multi-task and use both its “dominant” and its “dormant” language at the same time. However, although I frequently think in one language while speaking in the other, I don’t think I could think in both languages at the same time. But can speaking be completely dissociated from thinking? Oh great. Now my brain IS fried.

  6. Tony May 22, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Céline, in those days we smoked in telephone boxes, not to mention the smallest room in the house.

  7. Xavier Kreiss May 22, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    I share Tony’s admiration for simultaneous translators. It’s one thing to switch from one language to another when speaking. That, sometimes, is actually easier than monolingual speech. Rather than grope for the, er, ‘mot juste’ in English, it’s handy to go to French sometimes if the the right word can be found there.
    But to have to go from one to the other when translating from someone else’s speech, ie: without knowing in advance what is going to be said, is hellish. Fortunately, I only ever did it once, on an amateur basis, at an informal conference where the subject was pretty straightforward. I was terrified.
    Those poor translators from German to English, French etc, having to wait for the verb…
    Olli: I find it perfectly possible to speak both languages at the same time. But I think you’re right: it’s not possible to think in both simultaneously. I always switch mentally, even if it’s only for a few seconds every time.

  8. Olli May 24, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Definitely no way. I tried to think in German while I was talking in English to a teacher (and a similar test thinking in spanish while I was talking in English and German). There is no way, everytime you do this, you start to say thinks like “Das Zimmer ist libre, bitte salgan” 😀

  9. Amanda Grey May 27, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    I think when one is truly bilingual, there is no “conscious” awareness of the language used, only of what is being heard or said – the message. Sometimes I can’t remember which language I saw a film in…
    I did have one nightmarish experience in an interpreting booth (after 5 hours of gruelling interpreting). I thought the process felt rather easy for an end-of-day stint, until I realised from the looks on the participants faces, that I was translating from French into… French!

  10. James Palmer June 2, 2007 at 12:19 am

    I can read english while listening to (and following) Spanish speach and vice versa, but
    it´s a bit surreal. Years ago when I could speak French well I remember speaking French to some Germans and not understanding what the problem was until they told me I wasn´t speaking German
    My present issue is not being able to speak either Spanish or inglés, that is not finding a word in one language and backtracking in the other language to see if I can find it there and then translating it. But often I can´t find it in either and I end up having to paraphrase it.
    I hope this is a stage I am going through.

  11. James June 2, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    just checking to see if Céline had posted my post and i noticed the very pretentious looking phrase
    “spanish or inglés”, which was entirely unintentional. I in, and write almost intirely in, Spanish nowadays and both my spelling (I first typed “frase” and “speling” even in this) and English syntax (not “Inglish sintaxis” as i intially wrote) are going haywire.
    Have you written anything about interference anywhere?

  12. céline June 2, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    Not at length I don’t think, although I remember writing a post on how I try and stop my native language from deteriorating, but I can’t find it…

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