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March 14, 2011
Spoken language is fraught with ambiguity. Words with different meanings often sound identical (e.g., mail and male), leaving the listener with the task of determining which meaning ('post' or 'man') is contextually appropriate. The ambiguity problem is compounded in bilingual listeners who may additionally be faced with words that sound the same between their languages. The Dutch word meel ('flour'), for instance, sounds similar to the English word mail. Whether or not this is a problem for second language comprehension depends on the extent to which words from the non-target language compete for recognition and at which point in time the second language word emerges as the winner.
In his PhD research, Ian FitzPatrick investigated instances in which the bilingual person’s languages come into conflict - specifically, when a bilingual is challenged to arrive at a coherent interpretation of a spoken utterance in the presence of conflicting information between his languages. Results revealed that between-language interactions are not inevitable by-products of between-language overlap. Rather, they only occur when the bilingual has sufficient processing resources available or in the face of a great deal of between-language overlap.
Furthermore, these interactions are likely to diminish as the bilingual becomes more proficient in his second language. Even when we consider the most extreme case of between-language overlap, namely words that sound very similar between languages, the bilingual’s speech comprehension system gives priority to the language at hand, thereby minimising any between-language ambiguity.
Finally, it seems that words in the bilingual lexicon are linked to abstract language membership features, which allow the bilingual to distinguish between words of different languages.
Overall, the bilingual listener can rest assured in the knowledge that his language comprehension system is well equipped to deal with spurious between-language overlap. The results of this research may, however, constitute less good news for those bilinguals who frequently switch between languages, as it seems the switches may incur a processing cost for their interlocutors.
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