Bilingual Speakers And Translation

A recent study of “bilingual” Chinese-English speakers found that they subconsciously “resort to” their native language. In this case all of them had acquired fluency only “beyond adolescence”. Researchers presented them with pairs of English words and asked about any connection in meaning; sometimes there was no connection in meaning, but the Chinese translations had a character overlap and sound connection (they give this example: ham and train – Huo Che – Huo Tui). In those cases, “the repetition in Chinese was detected by brain waves recorded at the surface of the scalp.”

I’m presuming the test-takers were still able to make the call that there was no relationship in meaning, but these brain waves were recorded because, perhaps, they “repeated” more than once the Chinese equivalents when the words “sounded” connected even though they were clearly not.

I might be more comfortable interpreting this to mean that people don’t always or don’t only think in the second language, even when they are bilingual, rather than evidence that they continue to “translate”. And in fact I think the way that the researchers refer to “a sort of ‘unconscious instant translation service’” implies that this is not really what we normally consider translation.

A couple of questions come to mind. First of all, I’m curious about bilingual speakers who master the second language before adolescence, or those who grow up truly bilingual, for example speaking a different language with each parent. Is this “unconscious instant translation” really unique to those who learned the second language after a certain age? If so, is this an important difference in determining who is “really” bilingual and who is not?

Does this have any implications for teaching?

And finally, if you consider yourself bilingual, do you notice anything like this about your own speech or thinking?

Read the full article here.