Hidden benefits of a stay abroad

…or: what the ability to quickly name pictures has got to do with speaking two languages.

When learning a foreign language at school, we are often told that we should go to the country where that language is spoken. Many German pupils are sent to Great Britain, because, as their teachers and parents say, they’ll learn the language better, they’ll see how things work in a different culture, get more independent, etc. Those reasons are good reasons – but there is another one, one whose effects we don’t notice that easily. Before I tell you, I will explain a little more about what happens in the mind of a person who uses two languages.

Think about how fascinating this is: When you decide to say something in English, it will usually come out in English, without mixing German and English words (unless you are doing that for fun or don’t know a certain word). The reason why this works is that our mind has a tool to make sure that this kind of gibberish (German: Kauderwelsch) doesn’t happen. The tool is called inhibitory control – “to inhibit” means “to prevent”. Its job is to keep any kind of information that is not important for what we are doing from confusing us, not only, but also, when speaking.

Take a different example, that of driving a car or riding a bike: There might be a round, red sign right next to the road. You might notice it, but then you will just go past without having to check several times if it really isn’t a red traffic light. This is because once your mind knows that it isn’t important for what you are doing, inhibitory control will prevent it from attracting your attention. Similarly, when you decide to speak one language, your mind knows that words from the other language are not useful, and the inhibitory control mechanism prevents them from popping up: it suppresses them.

Now it gets a little complicated: Many people speak one language perfectly, because it is their mother tongue, and one or several languages less well, because they only learned those at school. In these people’s minds, their mother tongue is stronger than the other ones, or, as linguists call it, dominant. What do you think happens when these people are speaking their weaker language? Correct, their inhibitory control mechanism has to work very hard to suppress the dominant language and prevent it from taking over.

So this is what I was interested in: When people speak their weaker language a lot, does their inhibitory control get better because of all the practice? A good way to find out is to do experiments with native speakers of German who are living in Great Britain.

One of the object pictures used in the international picture-naming norming project (IPNP) picture naming project (https://crl.ucsd.edu/research/)

And this is where naming pictures comes in. There are several different ways of testing somebody’s inhibitory control. For some you only need to press buttons – try it out here, it’s fun! When it’s about using different languages, the experiment looks different: The people who participate in your study, the participants, are shown pictures of objects on a computer screen. They see one at a time and need to say the name of the object as quickly as they can. The trick is that each picture has a coloured frame around it. Before the experiment starts, participants are told that, for example, a green frame means they have to say the word in German (Bürste, Teller, Straße,…) , and a yellow frame means they have to say it in English (brush, plate, road, …). There are two different ways of doing this: You can either tell the computer to show green frames and yellow frames in random order so that the participant never knows which language to use next, or you can tell it to only show frames of one colour per experiment round.

My participants had to press a lot of buttons and had to name a lot of pictures, and each time I measured their reaction time, that is, the time it took them to press the button or to name a picture. Normally, that only takes a few milliseconds. The idea behind this is that the longer it takes, the harder it is for the participant to name the picture. And because the person is doing nothing but naming objects in two different languages, we can assume that it is harder because he or she had more trouble suppressing the language they were not meant to be using.

Remember, I expected that living in an English-speaking country would make Germans better at using inhibitory control. To be able to make this comparison, I did the same tests again in Germany, with people who also speak a lot of English. And what did I find? At first I was surprised, because in the test in which participants never knew which language they needed to use next, both groups were equally fast. This means that when participants were inhibiting one language in response to a signal (colour of the frame), there was no difference between the two groups. But then I found something interesting: In the tests in which participants knew which language they were supposed to use, the people living in Great Britain did a better job, and in both languages! So this group was better at inhibiting a language when they were able to plan which one to use. This allowed them to access both languages more easily, not just one of them.

What my results show is that going abroad and speaking a second language regularly might make you a little better at juggling BOTH of your two languages. So if you want to get better at this, you can either spend hours in front of a computer screen pressing buttons – or you can go explore a country where they speak a different language!



This blog post is based on my master’s dissertation:

Sell, Friederike (2013): Inhibitory control and lexical access in L1 and L2: Changes due to L2 immersion. Unpublished Master’s dissertation, University of Edinburgh.

Picture credits:

Buttons in featured image from Pixabay CC0; plate picture provided by the Center for Research in Language (CRL) at the University of California San Diego and downloaded from here (picture has been slightly modified).


Friederike Sell holds an MSc in Applied Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. She has been involved in research projects on pinpointing pragmatic competence in different speaker groups, the experiences of non-native speakers using English at work, email etiquette in student-professor exchanges, as well as a project which served to inform foreign language learning policy at Scottish primary schools. Besides these, her main research interests are research methodology and interlanguage pragmatics. In her ongoing PhD project she looks at the role of general cognitive mechanisms in foreign language speakers’ language use.

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