Two languages, two minds: flexible cognitive processing driven by language of operation

Psychol Sci. 2015 Apr;26(4):518-26. doi: 10.1177/0956797614567509. Epub 2015 Mar 6.


People make sense of objects and events around them by classifying them into identifiable categories. The extent to which language affects this process has been the focus of a long-standing debate: Do different languages cause their speakers to behave differently? Here, we show that fluent German-English bilinguals categorize motion events according to the grammatical constraints of the language in which they operate. First, as predicted from cross-linguistic differences in motion encoding, bilingual participants functioning in a German testing context prefer to match events on the basis of motion completion to a greater extent than do bilingual participants in an English context. Second, when bilingual participants experience verbal interference in English, their categorization behavior is congruent with that predicted for German; when bilingual participants experience verbal interference in German, their categorization becomes congruent with that predicted for English. These findings show that language effects on cognition are context-bound and transient, revealing unprecedented levels of malleability in human cognition.

Keywords: bilingualism; cognition(s); cognitive processes; language; psycholinguistics.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Multilingualism*
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology
  • Young Adult