"Il piccolo principe est allé ": Processing of Language Switches in Auditory Sentence Comprehension


There is an ongoing debate surrounding the possible mechanisms that enable bilinguals to switch between languages. Studies on bilingual language production consistently find that switching from a weaker (often second) language to a stronger (often first) language incurs a greater processing cost than producing switches in the opposite direction. The main account for these asymmetrical switch costs holds that the stronger language is inhibited to a larger extent during production in the weaker language than vice versa. Switching from a weaker to a stronger language thus requires greater disinhibition than the reverse. Cognitive control mechanisms are often assumed to be involved in switching between languages. Indeed, a number of functional imaging studies on productive language switching (e.g., Hernandez et al., 2001) have found activation in areas linked to cognitive control (among others the anterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and basal ganglia). The study by Abutalebi et al. (2007), which was published recently in The Journal of Neuroscience, is one of few studies to have investigated the comprehension of language switches that occurred in spoken sentences. Despite the value of this study, its explanation of the difference between regular and irregular language switches is debatable. In the following, we will specify why this is the case.

The Journal of Neuroscience