Linguists filter languages for sound before meaning.
Bilingual brains (bottom) react to words differently than monolingual brains (top).
© T. Muente
Bilingual people switch off one language to avoid speaking double Dutch. By first sounding out words in their brains dictionary, they may stop one tongue from interfering with another.
Those fluent in two languages rarely mix them up. They switch between language filters that oust foreign words, Thomas Munte of Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, and his team suggest1.
Say the word
Muntes team examined people fluent in Spanish and Catalan, a language of north-eastern Spain. The subjects picked out real Spanish words from a list of Spanish, Catalan or pseudowords such as amigi.
Common Catalan words produced the same brain activity as uncommon ones in bilinguals. Fluent monolingual readers jump straight from the familiar word dog, to a stored concept of a dog. Bilinguals appear not to access a words meaning before rejecting it.
Bilinguals use a different processing pathway, the team suggests, which sounds out the word first. The fMRI images showed that a brain area involved in spelling out letters is active when rejecting Catalan and pseudowords. The pronunciation rules of Spanish or Catalan might work as a filter, recognizing words in the inappropriate language. Speakers switch filters when they switch between languages.
HELEN PEARSON | © Nature News Service
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