METM22 Chronicles: Jon Andoni Duñabeitia

A look inside the multilingual mind: how words and contexts interact as we understand and produce language

Friday’s keynote address was a lively and fascinating tour of the multilingual mind.

Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, native son of the Basque province of Bizkaia, speaker of Basque, Spanish and English, and a cognitive scientist of language at Nebrija University in Madrid, walked us through the bilingual brain.

He began by grounding us in three fundamental facts about our bilingual brains:

  • they spontaneously and automatically translate between the languages we know
  • they pay a price for having multiple lexical representations for the same concept
  • they move between languages with ease

METM23 keynote slide

Bilingual brains store words in a single mental lexicon. A single conceptual stimulus, say a picture of a dog, activates all the words that describe it, regardless of context language. In Jon Andoni’s brain, for example, the words txakur, perro and dog would all be activated, along with the pronunciation, spelling, morphosyntax, semantics and socio-pragmatics associated with each. He’d select the correct word for the context nearly all the time, but under certain conditions, such as the picture-word interference paradigm illustrated in the image, it could take some time. He may even make the wrong choice if the competing options remain active or are enhanced.

In this experiment, bilingual Spanish–English speakers see a picture of a dog and the Spanish word “dolor” and are instructed to name the pictured item in Spanish. Speakers almost always respond correctly and say “perro”, but the spelling of “dolor” overlaps with the spelling of “dog”, keeping the English word active. This slows down bilinguals’ response time both relative to monolingual Spanish speakers and to conditions where the distractor word does not overlap with the target word in either language.

The difference in response times in experimental settings is very small – in the order of milliseconds – but it illustrates the fact that, relative to monolinguals, bilinguals have to exert extra cognitive control to inhibit the language that isn’t allowed by the context. In scenarios where bilinguals can mix their languages at will, however, research suggests that they may enjoy a cognitive benefit when allowed to deploy their languages in the “easier” way when interacting with other bilinguals.

At this point of his talk, Jon Andoni switched gears and climbed above the psycholinguistic level to note that in many societies different languages co-exist but language segregation is the norm, particularly in public life, e.g. education and government. Taking a cue from the multilingual mind, Jon Andoni considered the potential benefits of a sociolinguistic model of language inclusion, i.e. voluntary language mixing, as a way of respecting and responding to linguistic and cultural diversity.

Research shows that our emotional responses to words and concepts tend to be weaker in our learned language(s) than in our home-acquired one(s). Jon Andoni calls this the language–emotion binomial (coupling). Here he invoked the trolley problem – a thought experiment involving a life-or-death dilemma – to illustrate that when making decisions in the less emotionally charged language, the coupling is fragile and we may be more willing to do, say or agree to something we wouldn’t in our home language(s) with the more robust language–emotion coupling.

This has important consequences for society at large. To give just one example, consider the European Union, a body that sets policy that affects nearly 448 million people. How many policy makers do this critical work in a second language rather than in a more emotionally grounded home language, and what are the ramifications of that?

Jon Andoni closed with a quote widely attributed to Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

This METM22 keynote talk was chronicled by Wendy Baldwin.

Featured photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres.

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