Bilingualism changes how we perceive and process information

Thematic Section: Consequences of bilingualism: Embracing the complexity

sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, creativity, attrition, emotion

Viorica Marian, Northwestern University, Evanston, USA
Sayuri Hayakawa, Northwestern University, Evanston, USA

Experience learning and speaking more than one language can have a pervasive impact on perception, cognition, and behavior, ranging from automatic sensory processing to higher order cognitive functions. We highlight several recent findings from our lab on the consequences of bilingualism in various domains. We begin with a discovery that early bilingual experience influences how individuals process and control auditory input. Measures of otoacoustic emissions reveal that bilinguals exert greater top-down control over the mechanics of the cochlea relative to monolingual controls, enhancing their ability to essentially “turn down the volume” of noisy auditory stimuli. Next, we discuss our finding that bilingual experience can alter the process of audiovisual integration. Hearing a speech sound, such as “ba” while seeing an incongruent lip-movement, such as “ga,” often results in the perception of an entirely different sound, such as “da.” We find that this illusion, known as the “McGurk Effect,” is more prevalent among bilinguals than monolinguals, suggesting that early experience communicating in complex multilingual environments can have a lifelong impact on audiovisual processing. We conclude with a discussion of research exploring how language experience affects judgment and decision-making by examining the consequences of using different languages in clinical settings. These recent discoveries illustrate the widespread impact of bilingualism, beginning with how we experience basic perceptual inputs, followed by how we integrate information across modalities, and extending to how we make choices that impact our lives. We conclude that bilingual language experience is a significant source of plasticity and change for human function.