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First language features support memory in late bilinguals

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Research on university students shows how L2 learners use features of their first language to help with remembering events, Federica Tedeschi writes.

Late bilinguals use features of their first language to help them remember while writing or speaking in their L2, a study of 95 university students suggests.

‘Speakers are still thinking in their L1 when using L2’, according to researcher Luna Filipović of the University of East Anglia.

Her study of native speakers of English and Spanish examined the use of ‘intentionality’, which uses language to mark an event as intentional or unintentional, a common feature in Spanish but not in English.

The sample included 20 English and 20 Spanish monolinguals and two groups of late bilinguals: 28 English speakers with Spanish L2 and 27 Spanish speakers with L2 English.

The four groups were tested on their capacity to recall and verbalise information presented through videos to establish their use of language that marks intentionality.

The groups were shown ten videos each, either containing an intentional or non-intentional causation event.

For instance, ‘a girl popping a balloon on purpose’ versus ‘a girl playing with a balloon, which popped accidentally and this surprised her’.

They were also randomly shown ten ‘filler’ videos reproducing non-causation events such as ‘a woman reading a book’.

Students were next asked to recall the events shown in the videos by answering two yes/no questions about the scenes they had watched.

When then asked to describe the events in the videos, the answers followed a similar pattern. All the monolingual speakers used similar constructions to describe voluntary actions but only the Spanish clearly specified when an action was involuntary.

To ensure both languages in the bilingual groups were simultaneously active, they were provided with questions in their L1s, while they were required to answer in L2.

Most of the students in the bilingual groups used grammatically correct L2 expressions, but only the Spanish L1 subjects always distinguished between intentional and non-intentional meaning, even when it was not required in English.

For instance, Spanish L1 students were recorded using the intentional ‘The girl made the balloon explode’, and also the non-intentional ‘A girl played with a balloon and it exploded accidentally’.

Conversely, the Spanish L2 speakers didn’t make an explicit distinction based on intentionality.

They tended to use the same constructions indiscriminately (e.g. El globo se rompió = The balloon burst) for both intentional and non-intentional events.

It is worth noting that when the students were asked yes/no questions about the videos, the Spanish native speakers, both monolingual and bilingual, recalled whether events were intentional or non-intentional correctly in nearly 90 per cent of the cases.

All the English native speakers, including those with Spanish L2, only recalled intentionality correctly about 60 per cent of the time.

‘The habit of always expressing intentionality [as in Spanish] versus… expressing intentionality only optionally [English] leads to a different linguistic focus on this event component,’ Luna Filipović told the EL Gazette.

‘And this affects memory with regards to whether causation was intentional or not,’ she added.

The findings, though, are preliminary. The sample size was small and the study included participants with different levels of competence in their L2. None of them had experienced of extensive immersion in L2.

Filipović believes further study is needed to establish whether immersion and substantially more advanced L2 experience would indeed lead to thinking in the L2 rather than the L1.


⇒ Speaking in a second language but thinking in the first language: language-specific effects on memory for causation events in English and Spanish – Dr Luna Filipović, University of East Anglia. tinyurl.com/yd8958cc