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Bilingual Word Access

Abstract and Keywords

A challenge for any model of bilingual word access is to explain how speakers are able to select words from the intended language without experiencing intrusions from the coactivated unintended language. The authors provide an overview of current models of bilingual speech production, and then critically examine the hypothesis that the unintended language has to be inhibited in order to select words from the intended language. The authors focus on (a) lexical retrieval difficulties associated with bilingualism and second language production; (b) cross-language semantic contextual effects; (c) advantages in domain-general cognitive control associated to bilingualism; (d) the relationship between domain-general cognitive control, language control, and bilingual advantages and disadvantages; and (e) the impact of becoming bilingual on lexical retrieval, language control, and domain general cognitive control. The authors conclude that despite the appeal of a unified inhibitory control account, a systematic evaluation of the literature highlights that a single mechanism is likely insufficient to capture all data.

Keywords: bilingual language control, bilingual speech production disadvantage, cross-language semantic contextual effects, bilingual advantages in cognitive control, immersion learning


The mental lexicon has had a privileged position since the birth of the psycholinguistic study of bilingualism and still continues to be at the core of the debate in psycholinguistics. While earlier investigations focused on the organization of the bilingual lexicon (are representations shared or separate across languages?), more recently emphasis is on lexical access and how bilingual speakers manage to avoid interference from the language not in use during speech production. In this chapter we focus on the latter issue and the exposition is structured as follows. First, we provide an overview of current models of bilingual speech production, focusing on their ability to account for the critical process of lexical selection. Second, we review several predictions that follow from these models and examine how recent findings support such predictions. Finally, we briefly discuss the impact that becoming bilingual has on language production and related collateral effects. The major conclusions we reach in this chapter can be summarized as follows:

  • We argue that the prototypical tasks employed to study language control in bilingual speech production do not suffice to settle the issue and novel paradigms must be explored.

  • The few attempts to explore bilingual language control with novel tasks seems to bring forward evidence that is not readily explained by the dominant accounts, possibly indicating the necessity for a conceptual shift concerning language control.

  • Despite the appeal to explain bilingual processing disadvantages between monolinguals and bilinguals, and between L1 and L2 on the (p. 183) one hand, and the bilingual executive advantages on the other hand in terms of a single inhibitory control account, systematic comparisons highlight that such common ground is likely insufficient to capture all data.

Language control in bilingual word production

Perhaps the most explored question in bilingual language production has been how a person who masters two languages is able to speak in one language without suffering massive intrusion from the other. Most of the answers to this question assume a language control mechanism that allows bilinguals to keep production in each language separate. The functioning of such a mechanism is referred to as bilingual language control.

Three major proposals on bilingual language control have been put forward. According to what is referred to as the concept selection account, the language a speaker wants to use at a given point in time is specified at the conceptual level as part of the preverbal message, which permits the brain to essentially activate words only in the target language (e.g., Bloem & La Heij, 2003; Bloem, van den Boogaard, & La Heij, 2004; La Heij, 2005). A second critical assumption of this account is that word production unfolds in a fully serial fashion thereby only the word corresponding to the selected concept is accessed at the lexical level. Under this proposal there is no cross-language interference because words in the language not in use will not (or only redundantly) be accessed. Critical in this interpretation is La Heij’s proposal that a language cue at the conceptual level ensures that activation propagating from concepts only reaches the corresponding lexical representations in the target language (La Heij, 2005). Although the concept selection account provides a straightforward explanation of how bilinguals select words in the proper language, there are several problems with such a view. First, a host of data make a strong case against fully serial processing in language production (e.g., Caramazza, 1997; Dell, 1986; Levelt, Roelofs, & Meyer, 1999; Meyer, Belke, Telling, & Humphreys, 2007; Meyer & Damian, 2007; Morsella & Miozzo, 2002; Navarrete & Costa, 2005; Roelofs, 1992, 2003, 2006, 2008) as well as in other related (e.g., Barsalou, 1999; Collins & Loftus, 1975; Fowler, Brown, Sabadini, & Weihing, 2003; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Liberman & Whalen, 2000; Pulvermuller, 1999, 2005; Pulvermuller & Fadiga, 2010) and unrelated areas of cognition (e.g., Engel, Fries, & Singer, 2001; Gilbert & Sigman, 2007; Mesulam, 1998; Ullman, 1995). Second, the concept selection account contrasts with the predominant view that words in both of a bilingual’s languages become activated even when only one language is in use (e.g., Colomé, 2001; Costa, Caramazza, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2000; Hermans, Bongaerts, de Bot, & Schreuder, 1998; Poulisse, 1999; Thierry & Wu, 2007). Altogether, these problems question whether the concept selection account could fully capture the extent and complexity of bilingual language control.

Turning now to the two other proposals, they both embrace spreading activation differing primarily on whether they allow lexical items from distinct languages to compete for selection. According to the language-specific selection proposal advanced by Costa and collaborators (e.g., Costa, 2005; Costa & Caramazza, 1999; Costa, Miozzo, & Caramazza, 1999), target and related concepts activate the corresponding words in both languages; however, words in the nontarget language would not interfere since lexical selection mechanisms only consider words in the target language and selection only depends on the activation levels of the words in the target language. The selection mechanism is here conceptualized as a lexicon-external monitoring device capable of restricting lexical search exclusively to the intended language while ignoring activated words in the nonintended language. Other researchers proposed a nonspecific lexical selection account according to which words from both languages compete for selection. A word is selected in the in-use (target) language if its activation level surpasses those of the other words in both languages (e.g., Green, 1986, 1998; De Bot, 1992; Poulisse, 1997). Green’s inhibitory control model (ICM) (e.g., Green, 1986, 1998) is probably the most popular nonspecific lexical selection account. As hinted by its name, the model proposes that cross-language interference is resolved by reactively inhibiting words in the nontarget language. In this way, words would reach comparatively higher activation levels in the target language. Because the words with the highest activation level are eventually selected for production, words can typically be uttered in the intended language. Inhibition is supposedly controlled by a task module outside the lexicon that continuously specifies and updates a speaker’s goals by decreasing the activation strength of the lexical representations bearing language tags of the nonintended language. Next, we review some of the evidence accrued in support of language-specific selection and inhibitory control mechanisms, respectively, topics on (p. 184) which research on bilingual production has concentrated extensively over the last decade primarily using the paradigms of picture-word interference (PWI) and language switching.

In the PWI task participants typically name a target picture while ignoring a superimposed written word. Semantic interference is a standard finding in PWI. A picture (e.g., table) is named more slowly when the word distractor is semantically related to the target picture (e.g., chair) compared with an unrelated word distractor (e.g., shirt). Semantic interference is viewed by many researchers as reflecting competition between semantically related words during lexical selection (e.g., Glaser & Glaser, 1989; Levelt et al., 1991; Lupker, 1979; Schriefers, Meyer, & Levelt, 1990; Roelofs, 1992, 2003, 2006, 2008). Semantic interference is also found in the bilingual version of PWI where the target picture is named in one language (e.g., English; table) and the word distracter is presented in a different language (e.g., Spanish; silla [chair]) (e.g., Mägiste, 1984, 1985; Smith & Kirsner, 1982). Cross-language semantic interference has generally been viewed as supporting language nonspecific selection accounts like the ICM (e.g., Green, 1986, 1998). Indeed, the most straightforward explanation of this result is that the word distractor in the nontarget language competes for selection with the picture name from the designated language. However, Costa et al. (1999) proposed an alternative explanation according to which the locus of cross-language semantic interference is the target lexicon. Given that the distractor word in the nontarget language (silla) also activates its translation in the target language (chair), a delay in the selection of the picture name (table) could be induced by the translation (chair) rather than by the distractor word itself (silla [chair]). To find positive evidence for their proposal, Costa et al. (1999) conducted a series of PWI experiments where the (Spanish) distracter word (mesa [table]) was the translation of the (English) target picture-name (table). Since translation words are arguably the strongest between-language competitors in models like the ICM, such words are expected to produce the strongest form of interference if cross-language competition is at play. On the other hand, if cross-language semantic interference stems from within-language competition, as argued by Costa et al. (1999), then facilitation should appear since, through automatic translation, the distractor word coactivates the same lexical entry as the picture. Indeed, facilitation was observed by Costa et al. (1999). Proponents of cross-language competition have objected that this facilitation could be accounted for by conceptual overlap, masking and even overruling the inhibitory effects at the lexical level (e.g., Abutalebi & Green, 2007; Green, 2002; Hermans, 2004; Kroll, Bobb, Misra, & Guo, 2008). In the end, the discussion boils down on determining in which proportion facilitation involves conceptual versus lexical levels of processing, presently a difficult issue to resolve experimentally. More generally, a further factor complicates the interpretation of results obtained using PWI. In the last few years the debate on PWI has shifted from how word distractors interfere with lexical selection to whether the paradigm is actually relevant for studying lexical selection in monolingual and bilingual speech production. Results obtained in studies where variables, such as semantic relationship, semantic distance, or lexical frequency, were manipulated strongly challenge the view that the PWI paradigm is relevant for lexical retrieval processes (e.g., Miozzo & Caramazza, 2003; Costa, Alario, & Caramazza, 2005; Dhooge & Hartsuiker, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2012; Finkbeiner & Caramazza, 2006; Janssen, Schirm, Mahon, & Caramazza, 2008; Mahon, Costa, Peterson, Vargas, & Caramazza, 2007; Abdel Rahman & Melinger, 2007, 2009). Until we have a clear picture of the nature of the interference it is unlikely that the PWI task could be decisive in resolving the current debate on bilingual language control.

Language switching (LS) is another paradigm that has been widely used in the investigation of bilingual language control, arguably with stronger impact on models of word production than PWI. In a seminal experiment conducted by Meuter and Allport (1999), participants named Arabic numerals in their first language (L1) or in their second language (L2) as prompted by the color in which the numerals appeared. In consecutive trials, participants either used the same language (non-switch L1, non-switch L2) or changed from one language to the other (switch L1, switch L2), much like in the typical settings of task switching experiments (e.g., Meiran, 1996; Monsell, 1996). While switching was always associated with a naming cost, crucially, switching to L1 was more costly than switching to L2. This seemingly paradoxical result, referred to as the asymmetrical switch cost, receives a readily explanation within inhibitory models of bilingual language control (e.g., Green, 1986, 1998). Since the inhibition applied to a given language is proportional to the strength of the lexical activation of that language, L1 words are inhibited to a greater extent when speaking in L2 than vice versa. In fact, (p. 185) when naming in L1, the lexical representations in L2 hardly have to be suppressed, therefore switching to L2 proceeds fairly easily. In contrast, when naming in L2, the lexical representations in L1 have to be strongly suppressed to avoid cross-language intrusions. When in the next trial there is a switch to L1, not only do participants have to change stimulus-response rules, but they also need to overcome the strong inhibition applied to L1 words on previous trials. This results in the extra cost visible in the increased naming latencies in L2-L1 switching. Also in electrophysiological and neuroimaging investigations of LS, asymmetrical switch costs that mimicked those observed behaviorally appeared in ERPs (event-related potentials) components (N2) and brain areas (e.g., anterior cingulate cortex [ACC]) believed to reflect inhibitory processes (e.g., Jackson, Swainson, Cunnington, & Jackson, 2001; Wang, Xue, Chen, Xue, & Dong, 2007). Further evidence for the use of inhibition in LS tasks comes from two studies carried out by Philipp and colleagues (Philipp, Gade, & Koch, 2007; Philipp & Koch, 2009). Participants switched between German, English, and French. The critical comparison was between n-2 language repetition sequences (e.g., L1-L2-L1) and n-2 language nonrepetition sequences (e.g., L3-L2-L1). Words at the end of the sequences were named more slowly in n-2 language repetition sequences compared with n-2 language nonrepetition sequence. Although collectively these findings make a strong case for persisting inhibition of task-schemas in LS tasks, it is less clear whether such findings actually reveal that inhibition is applied to lexical items. This latter point echoes concerns as to whether LS is a valid paradigm for exploring bilingual lexical access (e.g., Finkbeiner, Almeida, Janssen, & Caramazza, 2006; Finkbeiner, Gollan, & Caramazza, 2006). Furthermore, as we review next, there are issues related to proficiency, response preparation time, response valence, the level at which inhibition applies, and the feasibility and nature of inhibition that significantly complicate explanations of asymmetrical switch costs within the framework of inhibitory accounts.

Participants in each of the LS studies we reviewed above were bilinguals with low or intermediate L2 proficiency. When Costa and Santesteban (2004) systematically explored the effects of proficiency on language switch costs, a more complex pattern emerged: switch costs were asymmetrical with low proficient bilinguals (thus replicating prior findings) but symmetrical with high proficient bilinguals, even when switching between L1 and a much weaker L3. The latter result is especially important. A symmetrical switch cost for high proficient bilinguals is expected under inhibitory accounts since comparable levels of inhibition are required in both languages. However, the same argument cannot be extended to L1-L3 switching. Furthermore, a number of studies have reported symmetrical switch costs also for low proficient bilinguals (e.g., Christoffels, Firk, & Schiller, 2007; Verhoef et al., 2010; Gollan & Ferreira, 2009). Related to such variability of switch cost patterns, switch costs can vary not only as a function of proficiency but also as a function of predictability, response preparation time, and response valence (e.g., Gollan & Ferreira, 2010; Verhoef, Roelofs, & Chwilla, 2009; Finkbeiner et al., 2006). For example, Verhoef et al. (2009) conducted an ERP study of LS where language cue and target stimulus were uncoupled. The results revealed that the occurrence of asymmetrical or symmetrical switch costs does not depend on language proficiency but rather on preparation time; and a modulation of the N2 ERPs component, which is taken to index language inhibition in the LS task (e.g., Jackson et al., 2001), only appeared on long cue-target intervals. On the basis of these results, Verhoef et al. (2009) concluded that while bilinguals may resort to inhibition as a strategy in the LS paradigm, they do not need inhibition to control their language use.

Interestingly, symmetrical switch costs typically appear along with slower naming latencies in L1 compared with L2 (i.e., reversed language dominance), both on switch and nonswitch trials, a finding that some take as evidence of global inhibition of the dominant language throughout the whole LS experiment (e.g., Abutalebi & Green, 2008; Christoffels et al., 2007; Gollan & Ferreira, 2010; Kroll et al., 2008). However, it is not clear how to relate the variability in switch cost patterns to the idea of inhibitory language control without assuming different types of inhibition between low and high proficient bilinguals. That is, inhibition would be static, continuous, and global in high proficient bilinguals, whereas it would be applied on a trial-by-trial basis in low proficient bilinguals (e.g., Gollan & Ferreira, 2010). At present, such variability in switch cost patterns and reversed language dominance does not seem to follow any stable pattern, emphasizing the possibility that the results reflect at least in part strategic differences in approaching the experimental task. Thus, despite extensive research with the LS paradigm whether the suppression (p. 186) of a whole lexicon is the way in which bilinguals control their speech output in normal conversation remains a controversial issue. Indeed, most of the time, bilinguals participate in conversations in monolingual settings, even in demographic groups where both languages are used on regular bases. A constant inhibition of the entire lexicon does not seem a particularly efficient mechanism, since it would make speech an extremely effortful endeavor for bilinguals.

Possibly due to the difficulties associated with interpreting the results of the PWI and LS tasks, the research on bilingual language production and control has shifted in the last few years toward different questions that could be investigated adopting other tasks than PWI and LS. Research has concentrated on key features of current proposals on bilingual language control. A first feature concerns the comparison between bilinguals and monolinguals and the degree in which word production is more effortful for bilinguals, even in contexts in which only one language is used. In a model such as the ICM, the constant presence of cross-language interference and suppression would result in more effortful processing for bilinguals. A second feature regards the interactions of inhibitory language control with semantic contextual effects. Inhibiting a representation or a language should presumably render that representation or language less accessible at a later point in time. On the other hand, as we will specify later on, applying inhibitory language control should abolish semantic competitor effects under certain circumstances. Finally, although both inhibitory and noninhibitory models assume that bilingual word production involves some sort of extracognitive control resources, such resources are differently characterized within each model. This, in turn, allows formulating different predictions on whether the experience of language control would spill over to other cognitive abilities. In what follows we examine the empirical evidence that is relevant for testing the different predictions derived from the models.

Is lexical processing more costly for bilinguals than for monolinguals?

Cross-language interference and its suppression would slow down lexical processing. This should be especially true when speaking in a second or nondominant language, since the interference should be greater from the strongest language than vice versa. Consistent with this expectation, picture naming was found to be slower in nondominant than dominant languages, even when the task was performed exclusively in one language (e.g., Gollan, Montoya, Cera, & Sandoval, 2008; Ivanova & Costa, 2008). Such a naming delay cannot be attributed exclusively to low L2 proficiency. In fact, it persists with high proficient bilinguals (e.g., Gollan et al., 2008; Ivanova & Costa, 2008) and over several repetitions (e.g., Ivanova & Costa, 2008).

What is the locus of the naming delay in L2? Is it at the lexical level? Results addressing this question come from studies that used neurophysiological measures. It appears that the few results demonstrating differences in the neuronal activity between speech in L1 and L2 revealed a late source of this effect: postlexical syllabification (e.g., Lucas, McKhann, & Ojemann, 2004; Indefrey, 2006). This led some researchers to propose a postlexical locus of the naming delay (for more details regarding this proposal see Indefrey, 2006; Hanulová, Davidson, & Indefrey, 2010). However, greater activation in areas associated with postlexical processing was found only in studies where participants were either low proficient or late bilinguals, while studies that examined early or high proficient bilinguals generally failed to find similar differences. Furthermore, it should be noted that the neurophysiological findings contrast with the behavioral results, which, as reviewed earlier, showed that even early and/or high proficient bilinguals are slower in L2 naming compared with L1 naming. Taken at face value, the conclusion of a postlexical origin of differences in L2 processing in low proficient or late bilinguals is surprising as it seems to imply that no extra resources are required for lexical access in the weaker language. However, using ERPs, a technique with fine temporal resolution, recent studies on picture naming revealed early differences (~200 ms post picture presentation) between first and second language production in early and high proficient bilinguals (e.g., Strijkers, Baus, Fitz Patrick, Runnqvist, & Costa, 2013; Strijkers, Costa, & Thierry, 2010). These differences appeared within the time window corresponding to lexical access (Costa, Strijkers, Martin, & Thierry, 2009; Indefrey & Levelt, 2004; Sahin, Pinker, Cash, Schomer, & Halgren, 2009; Strijkers et al., 2010). In addition to showing that with the proper technique, early and subtle differences between L1 and L2 can be detected when using sufficiently sensitive techniques, these ERPs findings might be consistent with those accounts of bilingual language production that assume cross-language competition at the lexical level. (p. 187)

In apparent contrast with inhibitory accounts of language control are various lines of evidence that reveal disadvantages in naming in the dominant and/or first language. For example, in studies in which participants were asked to name pictures with very low-frequency names, bilinguals were more likely to experience tip-of-the-tongues (TOTs) than monolinguals in addition to report of being familiar with fewer words (e.g., Gollan & Acenas, 2004; Gollan & Silverberg, 2001). Similarly, in comparison with monolinguals, bilinguals named fewer items in standardized naming tests such as the Boston Naming Test (e.g., Gollan, Fennema-Notestine, Montoya, & Jernigan, 2007; Kohnert, Hernandez, & Bates, 1998; Roberts, Garcia, Desrochers, & Hernandez, 2002) and typically showed longer naming-latencies in simple picture naming tasks (e.g., Gollan et al., 2008; Gollan, Montoya, Fennema-Notestine, & Morris, 2005; Ivanova & Costa, 2008; Gollan, Sandoval, & Salmon, 2011; Sadat, Martin, Alario, & Costa, 2012). Finally, bilinguals produced fewer items than their monolingual peers in timed verbal fluency tasks that required generating as many words as possible from a given category (animals, clothes) or with specific letter onsets (A, P, S) (e.g., Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2008; Gollan, Montoya, & Werner, 2002; Sandoval, Gollan, Ferreira, & Salmon, 2010). Importantly, several studies have shown that this disadvantage is circumscribed to lexical retrieval as opposed to affecting the language production system as a whole. For example, bilinguals do not experience more TOTs than monolinguals when targets are proper names (e.g., Gollan, Bonanni, & Montoya, 2005), even though retrieval is more demanding for proper names than common words (e.g., Cohen & Burke, 1993; Valentine, Brennen, & Brédart, 1996) and proper names are known to be adversely affected by cognitive decline (e.g., Burke, MacKay, Worthley, & Wade, 1991; Evrard, 2002; Rastle & Burke, 1996). Furthermore, bilinguals categorize pictures with the same speed as monolinguals, a finding indicating that whatever the causes of their naming disadvantages, these occur at a postsemantic level (e.g., Gollan et al., 2005). Finally, the finding that bimodal bilinguals (users of spoken and sign languages) experience more TOTs than monolinguals (e.g., Pyers, Gollan, & Emmorey, 2009) rules out an exclusive origin of the disadvantages at the phonological level of processing—there is no phonological overlap between signs and spoken words—pointing instead to a lexical origin (for a review see Runnqvist, Strijkers, Sadat, & Costa, 2011). Of course, this does not preclude that differences exist also at later stages. Indeed, phenomena such as the foreign accent (e.g., Alario, Goslin, Michel, & Laganaro, 2010; Flege & Eefting, 1987; Flege, Schirru, & MacKay, 2003) seem to indicate postlexical processing difficulties for L2 speakers. Furthermore, Gollan and Goldrick (2012) showed that even early and highly proficient bilinguals who do not have an accent in their L2 nevertheless experience processing difficulties for sublexical representations.

Inhibitory accounts of language control could explain L1 naming disadvantages in the same way as they explain L2 naming disadvantages (i.e., by assuming that the simultaneous activation of the nontarget language interferes with target-language production and that inhibition yields delays and inefficiencies in lexical retrieval). However, while inhibitory accounts anticipate L1 interference when speaking in L2, it is not so clear that they also predict L2 interference when speaking in L1. Furthermore, there are results that are difficult to reconcile with an interference-based account of bilingual disadvantage. For example, several studies reported reduced disadvantages for words that bilinguals could translate into their nondominant language compared with words that they only knew in their dominant language (e.g., Gollan & Acenas, 2004; Gollan et al., 2005). This finding is the opposite of what would be predicted by inhibitory accounts since words that are not known in the nontarget language obviously would not compete for selection and should thus be easily retrieved in the target language. Another piece of evidence seemingly hard to accommodate within inhibitory accounts emerged in studies that showed reduced disadvantage when bilinguals could use both of their languages (e.g., Gollan & Silverberg, 2001). As it is reasonable to assume that the use of both languages leads to strong activation of the nontarget language, inhibitory accounts would anticipate increase (not reduction) of interference in such conditions.

An alternative explanation of the bilingual disadvantages observed in production in L2 as well as in L1 is offered by the weaker-links or frequency lag account (e.g., Gollan & Silverberg, 2001; Gollan et al., 2005; Gollan et al., 2008; Gollan et al., 2011). The account builds on the observation that bilinguals divide their speech production between two languages. Thus, assuming that monolinguals and bilinguals produce comparable amounts of speech, bilinguals have relatively less experience with each of their languages. The reduced use is thought to have effects analogous to frequency; therefore, words that (p. 188) are commonly produced would strengthen their links between semantics and phonology whereas words that are produced less often would have relatively weaker links. In sum, under the weaker-links account, disadvantages associated with bilingualism stem from general mechanisms at play with monolingual and bilingual speakers alike.

Studies testing the weaker-links account and accounts that assume interference have mainly focused on the alleged contrasting predictions of these accounts concerning the effects of lexical frequency and ageing on bilinguals’ disadvantage. The weaker links account specifically anticipates that, as a result of bilinguals’ reduced language exposure, words have lower frequencies with bilinguals than monolinguals. This frequency lag might not be observable with very high-frequency words (e.g., car) being instead noticeable only with low-frequency words (e.g., pestle) whose low baseline activition levels render them almost inaccessible. Thus, the weaker-links account predicts that frequency effects should be larger for bilinguals than monolinguals (at least for low-frequency words) and for the nondominant language relative to the dominant language. In contrast, it has been argued that inhibitory accounts anticipate that the high-frequent words should be the most adversely affected since words that are used often supposedly reach relatively high activation levels and should thus be subjected to large interference. Diverging predictions similarly arise with ageing effects. On the one hand, the weaker-links account predicts that as bilinguals get older, their disadvantage with respect to monolinguals should reduce reflecting their long exposure to L2 words. For the same reason, older bilinguals should demonstrate smaller frequency effects as compared with younger bilinguals. On the other hand, interference-based accounts predict a larger disadvantage for older adults since their abilities to handle conflicting information should decrease in parallel with the age-related decline of their executive control. Several studies tested these predictions and provided us with an interesting but complex set of results.

Bilinguals’ disadvantage in picture naming has typically been more pronounced with low-frequency words (e.g., Gollan et al., 2008; Ivanova & Costa, 2008), thus confirming predictions derived from the weaker-links account. However, predictions regarding the nondominant language have not been borne out in an equally consistent manner: while Gollan et al. (2008) found a larger frequency effect for picture naming in the nondominant language, Ivanova and Costa (2008) failed to replicate this result. Results reported by Sandoval et al. (2010) in the verbal fluency task complicate the picture even further. Bilinguals tended to produce more low-frequency words than monolinguals, a finding apparently inconsistent with the increased disadvantage for low-frequency words observed in picture naming, but also one in line with inhibitory accounts. Finally, regarding the performance of older adults, it seems like the bilingual disadvantage remains stable with increased age. Gollan et al. (2008) found smaller language dominance effects in older than in younger adults, but only for pictures with low-frequency names. However, none of the extant accounts predict bilingual disadvantages impermeable to ageing.

Are there ways to reconcile these findings? As highlighted by several researchers, it is unlikely that accounts that attribute the bilingual disadvantage to single sources (frequency of use, interference, postlexical processing difficulties) would be able to explain such a complex set of data (e.g., Gollan & Goldrick, 2012; Gollan, Ferreira, Cera, & Flett, in press). Furthermore, an interference account of the bilingual disadvantage does not really make any predictions about how frequency should modulate bilingual speech production. In the same way as one could argue that high-frequency translations should be stronger competitors for selection, one could argue that low-frequency targets should be more vulnerable to lexical competition, and especially from competitors in a stronger language. Thus, manipulating lexical frequency might not be as useful as initially thought for the purpose of discriminating between the two accounts. To conclude the section, it should be noted that more evidence and different approaches seems to be required to make any conclusive statements about which mechanism is responsible for the differences in performance between monolinguals and bilinguals.

Interactions of language control and semantic contextual effects

The continuous inhibition of words in the language not in use would render such words less accessible at a later point in time, and this should be true especially for L1 words since these should be strongly inhibited when L2 is in use. Long-lasting inhibitory effects could account not only for transient difficulties in L1 word retrieval—as those observed in language switching—but also for naming delays in L1 and even for the phenomenon known as first language attrition (the deterioration (p. 189) of L1; e.g., Köpke & Schmid, 2004; Schmid, 2002; Seliger & Vago, 1991). This hypothesis was tested in a recent experiment conducted by Levy and collaborators (Levy, Mc Veigh, Marful, & Anderson, 2007). The experiment included three tasks performed in sequence: (a) participants studied some pictures along with their L2 names; (b) depending on a color cue, pictures were named in L1 or L2 a varying number of times (ten, five, one or zero); (c) participants were presented with prompt words and retrieved the L1 picture names rhyming with the prompt words. Levy et al. observed that the retrieval of L1 words was impaired as the naming in L2 increased. An account assuming inhibitory mechanisms with long-lasting detrimental effects on L1 production could explain the findings of Levy et al. However, this account seems unable to accommodate two other results reported by Levy et al. First, the negative effect of naming in L2 on subsequent L1 memory was found only after 10 repetitions—after one or five repetitions L1 memory was facilitated or unaffected. Second, even after 10 repetitions the negative effects of L2 naming on L1 memory only appeared with participants with the lowest L2 fluency. Given that the people who experience either L1 attrition or slowing in L1 picture naming usually have high levels of fluency in L2, it is hard to see how this latter finding could be in line with the hypothesis of long-lasting detrimental effects on L1 production due to L2 production. These seemingly inconsistent results motivated a replication of the experiment originally conducted by Levy et al. (Runnqvist & Costa, 2012). Not only were the negative effects of L2 naming on L1 recall not found in this second study, but L1 memory was facilitated in each of the repetition conditions. The result pattern of this second experiment suggests that whatever the nature of the mechanisms responsible for bilingual language control, such mechanisms might not have detrimental consequences on memory retrieval. Although the source of the discrepancy between the experiments is presently unclear, the inconsistencies in the data demand us to be extremely cautious in interpreting Levy et al.’s results as supporting the hypothesis of inhibitory language control.

Along the same line of reasoning that producing words in one language should hamper subsequent production in another language due to inhibitory language control, Misra, Guo, Bobb and Kroll (2012) examined L1 and L2 speech production in a blocked naming context. The authors measured the RT’s and the ERP waveforms in a picture naming task in which one group of participants first named pictures in L1 (2 blocks) and then named the same pictures in L2 (2 blocks), and another group of participants started in L2 and continued with L1. When comparing the first presentation for one group of participants with the third presentation for the other group of participants (i.e., the same picture in the same language preceded or not by naming in a different language) the authors found shorter RTs and more positive ERPs for repeated items when naming in L2 followed naming in L1. In contrast, for L1 naming after L2 naming, there was little evidence of repetition priming in RTs and more negative ERPs. All together, these data were interpreted as reflecting a sustained inhibition of L1 in contexts of blocked L2 speech.

Similarly, Van Assche, Duyck, and Gollan (in press) reported report two experiments in which Dutch-English and Chinese-English bilinguals completed a letter fluency task (i.e., produce as many words as possible beginning with the letter A). Language testing order was counterbalanced across participants and the task included one different category condition (different letters were used for the task in English and the other language) and one same category condition (the same letter was used for the task in English and the other language). The main finding replicated across the two groups of participants was that speakers produced fewer words in the same category condition in their dominant language after completing the task in their nondominant language. Additionally, there was some evidence that the Chinese bilinguals produced fewer words in the dominant language also in the different category condition after completing the task in the nondominant language. Again, this evidence was interpreted as being consistent with inhibitory models of language control. More specifically, the authors emphasized the importance of item-specific as opposed to whole-language control in the basic bilingual speech production architecture.

In evaluating these studies, it is important to keep in mind that inhibitory effects on behavior might not result only from inhibitory mechanisms. Indeed, recently other dynamics stemming from principles defined in the monolingual literature have been proposed to explain interference effects without the need of bilingual-specific language control structures (e.g., Runnqvist, Strijkers, Alario, & Costa, 2012; see also Runnqvist, Fitzpatrick, Strijkers, & Costa, 2012). This novel account capitalizes on the notion of persistent (p. 190) target strengthening thought responsible for semantic interference in monolingual speech production (e.g., see Howard, Nickels, Coltheart, & Cole-Virtue, 2006; Oppenheim, Dell, & Schwartz, 2010). In short, according to this account semantic interference effects are not caused by inhibition, but rather through the enhancement of the lexical representations and/or lexico-semantic connections of a just produced target, which in turn renders a semantically related word less accessible in future production through an increase in lexical competition. For example, producing the L2 word “perro” [dog], will strengthen this representation in the system. If, afterward, one wishes to utter its translation “dog,” the previously strengthened “perro” [dog] will be a stronger competitor making the retrieval of “dog” harder. Note that in this explanation there is no need to assume inhibition within the system even though it elicits an inhibitory effect on behavior (for a similar reasoning in the field of memory see Raajmakers & Jakab, 2013).

Interestingly, also the exploration of another specific prediction made by the ICM is in fact better captured by the above speaker-general strengthening account. According to the ICM inhibitory control should lead in well-defined circumstances to the abolishment of semantic effects (both within and between languages) (Green, 1998). That is, when producing a word that is semantically related to a previously produced word, naming latencies should only be slower if there is no intervening language switch (regardless of the target language). This is because, according to the ICM, inhibition is applied to the nontarget lexicon as a whole, reducing the level of activation of all words in the nonintended language. Consequently, semantic effects are only predicted when the same language is used continuously, or immediately following a language switch (i.e., before the residual activation of the nontarget language has been successfully suppressed). That is, saying cat is predicted to interfere with the production of gato or perro only if they appear on consecutive trials (by means of a head start for cat). After that, inhibition is applied to the whole lexicon and cat will no longer have a higher resting level of activation than any other word and will thus not be a strong competitor for gato or perro. Similarly, the language-specific selection account only predicts transient effects of semantic relatedness, which are explained as within-language effects. That is, the activation of cat will coactivate gato and perro which (either on the same trial or a subsequent trial) may facilitate or interfere with, respectively, the production of gato through residual activation. Such a mechanism should, however, not be functional for semantic relationships between items spanning more than one trial since it is known that residual activation alone cannot cause persistent priming (e.g., Howard et al., 2006).

One study (Lee & Williams, 2001) had provided evidence for the prediction of the ICM that semantic effects (e.g., production of dog slowing down subsequent production of gato) can be abolished by an intervening language switch. However, an attempt to replicate this study by Li and MacWhinney (2011) was only partially successful. A recent study tested the occurrence of cumulative semantic interference across languages (Runnqvist, Strijkers, et al., 2012). Cumulative semantic interference refers to the fact that naming a picture that belongs to the same semantic category as a previously named picture becomes increasingly harder (i.e., increases naming latencies) every time a new category member is named. This effect is thought to reflect the ease with which lexical items are accessed (either as a consequence of lexical competition or not; e.g., Costa et al., 2009; Howard et al., 2006; Oppenheim et al., 2010; Navarrete, Mahon, & Caramazza, 2010). In the bilingual version of this paradigm, cumulative semantic interference was obtained between languages and with the same magnitude as within-language, a result that cannot be accommodated by either the ICM or the language-specific selection model in their current forms. In contrast, these results are the predicted finding according to the simple strengthening and competition account discussed above, given that a strengthened item (due to previous production of that item) will induce the same amount of interference on a semantically related item, regardless of whether it is from the same language or not (for details see Runnqvist, Fitzpatrick, et al., 2012). We believe that further direct tests of this hypothesis may be a fruitful approach for future research and could offer a promising and simpler alternative to the existing accounts.

How do the collateral effects of bilingualism on attention relate to language control?

As described in the first section of this chapter, there is widespread agreement on the idea that bilingual speakers resort to some sort of cognitive control whenever speaking in one of their languages in order to avoid cross-language intrusions. Their extended experience of language control has (p. 191) been found to exert positive effects on attention processing across the life-span. For example, it has been observed that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in a card-sorting task that demands attention control (e.g., Bialystok, 1999) and that bilingual older adults experience reduced age-related cognitive decline as compared to monolinguals (e.g., Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004). Importantly, an advantage has also been found for young adults who are at the peak of their attentional abilities (e.g., Costa, Hernández, Costa-Faidella, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2009; Costa, Hernández, & Sebastán-Gallés, 2008; Hernández, Costa, Fuentes, Vivas, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2010). Therefore the bilingual advantage is not restricted to developmental stages in which the attention system is not at its maximum level of performance. In addition to provide a more comprehensive characterization of the bilingual experience, analyses of the bilingual advantages could inform us about the nature of bilingual language control. A primary thrust for pursuing this line of research derives from the observation that bilingualism advantages are not across the board; rather, they seem to be limited to the executive control network of attention that is plausibly involved in language control. In this section we summarize findings demonstrating the effects of bilingual experience on attention.

Several studies have reported smaller difference between congruent and incongruent trials in bilinguals as compared with monolinguals, a finding that was taken as indexing reduced conflict effect and therefore an advantage in conflict resolution in bilinguals (Bialystok et al., 2004; Bialystok et al., 2008; Costa et al., 2008; Hernández et al., 2010). This advantage seems to originate from a better ability to ignore irrelevant information as shown by several studies in which bilinguals outperform monolinguals in interference suppression but not in response inhibition (e.g., Martin Rhee & Bialystok, 2008). This can reasonably be put in relation to the continuous need to prevent massive interference from the nontarget language during speech production, the key assumption in inhibitory models of language control.

However, far from all studies that compared the performance of bilinguals and monolinguals in tasks requiring conflict resolution found reduced conflict effects with bilinguals, casting doubts on the robustness of this phenomenon (e.g., Costa et al., 2008). Enhanced conflict monitoring—overall faster responses than monolinguals in tasks involving conflict resolution—was the type of advantage typically reported (e.g., Bialystok, 2006; Bialystok et al., 2004; Bialystok, Martin, & Viswanathan, 2005; Bialystok et al., 2006; Costa et al., 2008; Martin-Rhee & Bialystok, 2008). Specifically, bilinguals are faster than monolinguals on both congruent and incongruent trials, but only in tasks that include both of these types of trials thus entailing high monitoring demands. This pattern of findings is believed to reflect the more efficient functioning, in bilinguals, of the system monitoring conflict resolution on trial-by-trial basis. The bilingual advantage manifests itself also in smaller costs in switching between different tasks or rules (e.g., Costa et al., 2008; Prior & MacWhinney, 2010), above all in those conditions in which switching is especially difficult (e.g., Costa et al., 2008). This could reflect a better ability of shifting mindsets, a property of executive control that is related to conflict monitoring. This specific advantage could stem from the need to continuously monitor the appropriate language for each communicative interaction. Assuming that it is possible to establish a direct link between components of executive control and components that have been proposed to underlie bilingual language control (i.e., monitoring vs. interference suppression), a better understanding of the relationship between executive and language control might help us to refine models of bilingual language production.

Before concluding this section, we want to draw attention to findings in early language acquisition of potential interest for understanding the nature of bilingual language control. Cognitive gains in executive control have been observed as early as 7 months of age in infants growing up in a bilingual environment (e.g., Kovacs & Mehler, 2009). The appearance of gains in preverbal infants calls into question accounts that trace bilinguals’ enhanced executive control to interference suppression in language production. Instead, such precocious advantages suggest a link with monitoring the two languages. It is possible that some forms of conflict monitoring are needed to separate the acoustic input according to language. Forms of monitoring that originate in perception are later extended to production. Still, it is possible that the cognitive gains observed in infants and adults have different origins and are related to comprehension and production, respectively. The extent to which language control overlaps in production and comprehension is an important issue on which future research will hopefully make substantial progress. (p. 192)

Is there a common source for language control and the collateral effects of bilingualism?

The results we have reviewed so far in relation to mechanisms associated with language control, naming delays in L2 and L1, and bilingual advantages in executive control could be conceived as arising from a single processing or as stemming from different sources. If the inhibition of the nontarget language is common over all of these mechanisms, it should be possible to find correlated behavior and brain measures corresponding to these mechanisms. Some steps have already been taken towards examining such correlations.

In a meta-analysis, Abutalebi and Green (2007) examined the neuronal substrates of language switching and task switching. Results from patient studies and hemodynamic studies converged in showing that subcortical regions (particularly the left caudate), and regions in the frontal cortex (particularly the ACC and Broca area), are involved in tasks requiring language control. Interestingly, these regions have also been demonstrated to support nonlinguistic tasks that require increased cognitive control and attentional demands (e.g., Botvinick, Nystrom, Fissell, Carter, & Cohen, 1999; Brass, Ullsperger, Knoesche, von Cramon, & Phillips, 2005). This overlap suggests that the same network ensuring successful control over competing behavior is also engaged in the successful control of language output (e.g., Abutalebi & Green, 2007).

Abutalebi et al. (2012) directly examined whether there are neural structures commonly engaged by language control and general cognitive control. To this end, they tested the same participants on a language switching task (targeting language control) and a flanker task (target general cognitive control) while recording their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging. It was observed that both tasks involved activation of the ACC, consistent with the previously discussed meta-analysis. Furthermore, when comparing the bilingual participants with a group of monolinguals performing the same flanker task, the authors observed a correlation between gray matter volume in the ACC and behavioral performance only for the bilingual group, as well as evidence for a more efficient use of the ACC (i.e., less activity) in the bilingual group compared with the monolingual group. Thus, altogether these results suggest that bilingualism, and in particular language control, induces functional neuroplasticity in the ACC, which has a positive impact on general cognitive control through a more efficient use of the ACC in situations of conflict. More generally, these data provide support for the hypothesis that bilingual language control is subsidiary to domain general executive control.

Using a different approach, Gollan et al. (2011) investigated whether language control failures increase with aging-related declines in executive control. It was observed that cross-language intrusions (e.g., inadvertently saying an English word on a Spanish-language trial) were strongly associated with flanker-task errors in older but not younger bilinguals, implying that executive control plays a role in maintaining language selection. On the other hand, the fact that such cross-language intrusions occurred rarely, also suggest the presence of independent forces that prevent language-selection errors. That is, this study suggest some but not a complete overlap between domain-general executive control and bilingual language control.

Also suggesting a certain independence of bilingual language control is another study by Calabria et al. (2012) in which high proficient bilinguals were tested in a language switching paradigm and a task switching paradigm. As discussed previously, high proficient bilinguals usually show symmetrical switch costs in language switching tasks (e.g., Costa & Santesteban, 2004). Hence, Calabria et al. reasoned that if bilingual language control is completely subsidiary to domain-general executive control, high proficient bilinguals should exhibit a symmetrical pattern also in a nonlinguistic switching task. Contrary to this prediction it was observed that switch costs between L1 and L2 were symmetrical, while switch costs between color and shape categorization were asymmetrical. Similarly, Weissberger, Wierenga, Bondi, and Gollan (2012) showed that aging-related slowing and aging-related increases in errors were larger in a nonlinguistic (color-shape) switching task than in a linguistic switching task. Thus, while the data of Abutalebi et al., (2011) show that language control overlaps to some extent with domain general executive control, the studies of Calabria et al. (2011) and Weissberger et al. (2012) show that such overlap is not complete, consistent with the study of Gollan et al. (2012).

Finally, while all the above studies tested the relationship between language control and domain general executive control, a study of Bialystok et al. (2008) aimed at testing whether the same processes underlie the bilingual advantage in executive control and the bilingual disadvantage in lexical access. The study was motivated by the following considerations on bilingual lexical retrieval. The language (p. 193) choices constantly made by bilinguals slow down lexical retrieval rendering it quite effortful. But to the extent that language choice engages the central control system of attention, control mechanisms become particularly efficient in this population. It is this constant experience in using attention to resolve conflict in online processing that ultimately determines the bilinguals’ advantage in executive control. After having assessed participants’ levels of executive control and lexical fluency, Bialystok et al. (2008) found that participants who showed the greatest access difficulties were not necessarily those who also showed the greatest advantages in executive control, leaving open the possibility that control advantage and access disadvantage are attributable to different causes in bilinguals.

To summarize, the attempts undertaken to examine the relationship between language control, executive control and the effects of bilingualism on language processing and nonlingusitic executive control processing have been fruitful in at least two ways: there is some evidence suggesting a common source for language control and executive control, but also evidence suggesting that such overlap is not complete; and evidence for both the beneficial effects in executive control and the detrimental effects in lexical processing has been obtained within the same participants, although they did not seem to correlate. With respect to bilingual language control, it is an area where promising results have been obtained but also one that merits further explorations particularly to determine whether the mechanisms proposed for domain-general control also extend to bilingual language control.

The development of language control and the collateral effects of bilingualism

An interesting question that concerns both the scope of all the issues we have addressed so far as well as the more general topic of brain plasticity is whether even relatively low proficient bilinguals show noticeable changes in language control, lexical access, and executive control. Throughout this chapter we have reviewed differences between high and low proficient bilinguals regarding both behavioral measures and patterns of brain activation. In most of these studies, age of acquisition and exposure were confounded. An attempt to untangle these variables was undertaken in two recent studies that investigated L2 acquisition in controlled environments that allow systematic variations in L2 exposure (immersed vs. classroom learning settings). Of particular interest here are the findings reported by Linck, Kroll, and Sunderman (2009) in speech production using a semantic verbal fluency task. Immersed learners produced more words in L2 and fewer words in L1 compared with classroom learners. Together, these results suggest that becoming bilingual is associated with an early attenuation in L1 access. Similarly, Baus, Costa, and Carreiras (2013) tested immersed learners at the beginning of a learning program (pretest) and at its completion (posttest) on a picture naming and a verbal fluency task in L1. These authors observed that pictures with noncognate and low-frequency names were named slower at the posttest. Second, less noncognate names were generated in the fluency task at posttest. Thus, similarly to the findings of Linck et al. (2009), the findings of Baus and colleagues (2013) demonstrate a rather fast onset of the detrimental effects of bilingualism on L1 access. However, it is important to keep in mind that immersion learning is normally correlated with an increased use of the new language and a decreased use of the first language. Thus, as discussed by Baus et al. (2013), the most parsimonious interpretation of the above discussed results is that lexical access is a process with a considerable degree of plasticity making it susceptible to the effects of frequency of use, even on a rather short term. In the end what the results suggest is that the monolingual brain might successively lose its position as the default situation.


To summarize, although our knowledge regarding bilingual word production and language control mechanisms has increased impressively, it is our opinion that none of the current models can successfully account for the multitude of results. However, considerable progress in the research on bilingual language control has opened new paths in the investigation of bilingual word production, many of which were reviewed in this chapter. With respect to future research on language control more specifically, we hope we have been convincing in arguing that as it is necessary to widen the scope of the investigation beyond PWI and LS, it is essential to generate novel approaches. In addition, bilingual theories may benefit by taking notice of the progress made in other areas of cognition, for example memory where patterns of facilitatory and inhibitory effects that resemble those in bilingualism have been reported and promising theories have been developed (e.g., Anderson & Spellman, 1995; Carr & Dagenbach, 1990; Raajmaakers & Jakab, 2013). Finally, we should mention that the (p. 194) investigation of top-down influences of attention and speech intention on language production is an understudied topic. Over the last decade there have been compelling demonstrations of the importance of proactive goal-directed top-down influences on the retrieval of task-relevant information both in language (e.g., Delong, Urbach, & Kutas, 2005; Kutas & Federmeier, 2000; Strijkers et al., 2011) and other cognitive domains (e.g., Bar, 2003; Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Engel et al., 2001; Gilbert & Sigman, 2007; Kastner, Pinsk, De Weerd, Desimone, & Ungerleider, 1999). Research on bilingual language production would most certainly profit from exploring this type of control, especially in consideration of the fact that most of the time bilinguals know perfectly well in which language the communicative act will take place. In conclusion, a fruitful path to pursue in future research on bilingual word production appears to be one that combines the investigation of the collateral effects of bilingualism with the development of novel approaches to the study of language control.


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