Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Understanding the code-switchers

I've always been fascinated by bilingualism.

Part of this is that I was raised, more or less, bilingual.  I say "more or less" because it wasn't my parents' intention to raise me speaking both French and English.  French was my mom's first language, and was also the first language of three of my grandparents, but I was always spoken to in English -- I only heard French when my parents and older relatives were talking about things they didn't want me to know about.

Which is a hell of an incentive for a six-year-old to learn a second language.

So I grew up understanding French pretty well, and (after taking four years of French in high school) reading it fluently, but I was rarely if ever expected to speak it.  This is why if someone comes up and starts talking to me in French, my brain goes into complete vapor-lock when I try to figure out what to say in response.

My brain also does this when people speak to me in English, but that's another matter.

Sadly, my French fluency has declined since I moved away from my home state of Louisiana, simply because I don't hear and/or read it any more.  My vocabulary has diminished pretty significantly, something that jumps out at me when I try to read French -- I run into words over and over that are in that obnoxious "I know I used to know this" category.  But I'm sure if I were to spend some time in France, it'd all come back.

What's most interesting about "code-switchers" -- people who can shuttle back and forth between two languages with ease -- is that the fear of some parents, that if they expose their kids to more than one language at a time, they'll confuse them or blend them, appears to be unfounded.  From my own experience, I can say I never had any problem knowing which language (for example) to speak with my only non-French grandparent, my Scottish paternal grandma, who remarked more than once that she couldn't understand how she'd "gotten mixed up in this mob of Frenchmen."  The brain seems somehow to be able to keep the languages separate, and not have a child start speaking in English and switch over to German mid-sentence, or something.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons M. Adiputra, Globe of language, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This all comes up because of some research that appeared last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Led by New York University neuroscientist Esti Blanco-Elorietta, the team of scientists looked at what was happening in the brains of multilingual people when they switched from one language from another -- and found some pretty odd results.

"A remarkable feature of multilingual individuals is their ability to quickly and accurately switch back and forth between their different languages," Blanco-Elorrieta said.  "Our findings help pinpoint what occurs in the brain in this process—specifically, what neural activity is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a new one."

Liina Pylkkanen, professor of linguistics and psychology at NYU and a co-author of the study, explained further.  "Specifically, this research unveils for the first time that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint."

Using magnetoencephalography, which measures the magnetic field changes (and thus the neuroelectrical activity) in the brain, the researchers were able to establish that once the first language is disengaged, the second one engages with virtually no cognitive effort at all.  Put more simply, when I switch from English to French, disconnecting the "English module" is more energy-expensive than turning on the "French module."

I find this kind of puzzling because English feels so effortless and French feels like a struggle most of the time.  If the Blanco-Elorietta et al. study is correct -- and I'm not doubting it based on my purely anecdotal evidence -- it seems like once I've switched to French, the effort level should drop, but in practice I don't find this is the case.  It may be that this is because I'm not really fluent any more -- I  spend a lot more time trying to remember words, conjugations, and grammar than I did when I was in my twenties.  So it's likely I'm just not a good test case, as someone who is not thoroughly bilingual.

But it's a pretty cool study.  I'd love to know more about language acquisition and production on the brain level -- this science is really in its infancy, and we're finding out new things about this most human of activities all the time.  As for me, I really should sign up for an online refresher class and see if I can recoup some of my lost French.  I know if I put a little effort into it, I could do it.  Vouloir, c'est pouvoir, tu sais?


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a charming inquiry into a realm that scares a lot of people -- mathematics.  In The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole investigates the beauty and wonder of that most abstract of disciplines, and even for -- especially for -- non-mathematical types, gives a window into a subject that is too often taught as an arbitrary set of rules for manipulating symbols.  Cole, in a lyrical and not-too-technical way, demonstrates brilliantly the truth of the words of Galileo -- "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."


  1. My wife is bilingual and when we met in university she was taking the French teaching option. For her the switch came effortlessly but especially so whenever whiskey was involved.

  2. I've read a ton of ethnography on bilingualism and code-switching especially among kids; I can recommend some good stuff when I'm back at my computer, but a fun one that comes to mind is Ana Celia Zentella's study with mid-grade kids in NYC - not only code-switching fluidly between English and Spanish, but also between more and less formal registers in both languages. Really cool.