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Stumbling for words on the tip of your tongue October 19, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Translation.

I thought it was just me, always stumbling to remember a word that is just beyond the reach of my memory. Well, it turns out it afflicts bilinguals more than monolingual speakers.

USA Today has an article entitled In search of that word on the tip of your tongue that discusses how “deaf sign-language speakers may hold the keys to finding where those words are hiding.” It turns out that sign language speakers have the same problem, but they call it “tip of the finger.” As Jennie Pyers and colleagues at Wellesley College in Massachusetts recently conducted a study of bilingual sign-language speakers that offers insights for all bilinguals.

As Ms. Pyers explains in the article, “”Bilingual folks have the problem even worse… In the study, English-only speakers, shown pictures of 52 rarely recalled things (such as a metronome), averaged about seven tip-of-the tongue glitches. But English-Spanish bilinguals did worse, averaging 12 glitches.” Pyers goes on to explain that “[m]ost likely… bilingual folks only get to exercise the vocabulary of each language half as much as single language speakers, with correspondingly fewer chances to regularly use a word.”

But it’s not all bad news. The study found that “people who speak more than one language possess advantages that make a difference, beyond just fluency in another tongue.” Multiple language speakers apparently outperform monolinguals because we “possess a better attention span for hard tasks. And they seem to be better at switching their focus from one task to the next, a real advantage in our era of multi-tasking emails, cellphones and occupations. The explanation is that they practice controlling their languages, repressing one at the expense of the other, constantly,” Pyers says. “So they are just better at controlling their focus.”

How about that? Yet another benefit of being bilingual. Who knew that those momentary lapses while struggling to come up for the right word make me better suited to being a translator, because it helps us focus our attention and multi-task.



1. Olivia - October 20, 2009

What a relief! I thought it was only me… Since living in France I have had to work much harder to keep up my native English, and I am often faced with “tip of my tongue” moments. It is so frustrating!

I agree that the lack of sufficient exposure to either language (a condition which is inherent to all bilinguals who use both languages on a regular basis) is the main culprit of this “syndrome”.

However, I have found that by actively working on both my languages, forcing myself to find the right word instead of letting it go, and making an effort to learn new words on a regular basis, I have partly been able to overcome the frustration of struggling to find the right words. It would be interesting to hear from anyone else who has experienced this, and how they have overcome it.

2. Susanne Aldridge III - October 20, 2009

Very interesting, but I am not sure about the focus thing! I sure as hell don’t think that – Oh look, a butterfly – What’s that on my shoe? – I am hungry – What’s that actor’s name again?
Uhm, where were we?

3. Ashleigh Grange - October 20, 2009

Hi Jill! This is not directly related to the language connection, but here in Canada, there’s a new commercial on TV for the Palm Treo (I think that’s the product, but could be wrong) that plays off this same “tip of the tongue/tip of the finger” phenomenon. In this case, the reference is to using the phone to search the Internet for the things that are on the tip of our tongues using the keypad, but I thought the similarity was worth mentioning. Great post – I found it very interesting!

4. Camila Muñoz O. - October 23, 2009

I’m wondering now what kind of supernatural skills I’ll be abble to use when I finish my career. The bassic curriculum includes Portugese, Japanese and English, so supposedly I can already talk four languages at a very basic level… at least.
I guess because of that sometimes in the ‘top of tongue/finger’ situations I came up whit words from a diferent language… like the time that I couldn’t remember ‘ear’ in English and the only word that was running in my head was ‘mimi’ (ear in Japanese.)
Maybe I can not focus enough…

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