Translation and language switching—The costs and benefits of working in multiple languages

Thematic Section: Consequences of bilingualism: Embracing the complexity

sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, creativity, attrition, emotion

Jeanette Altarriba, University at Albany, State University of New York, USA

Some of the most basic uses of language among bilinguals involves the acts of translating and switching between languages. Both are taxing on the cognitive system, as they involve engaging lexical and conceptual/semantic systems in two languages—sometimes simultaneously. The focus of the current work are the challenges in translating related to word finding (Basnight-Brown & Altarriba, 2014) and issues related to the ease with which one switches between languages, particularly with regards to emotional contexts (Basnight-Brown, Kazanas, & Altarriba, 2018). In one study, fluent Mandarin-English bilingual speakers were asked to translate concrete, abstract, and emotion words as quickly and as accurately as possible. For emotional stimuli, it was found that translating from the first language (L1, Mandarin) into English (L2) was accomplished more quickly and with greater accuracy than translating other types of words, in the same direction. That is, there are costs when translating between languages that are moderated both by language direction and word type. In other instances such as with L2-L1 translations, emotion word translation appears to be more challenging often because these words are less likely to have one-to-one correspondences across languages. The current work will demonstrate how translation is at once an advantage for bilingual and multilingual speakers in many applied contexts, but also, poses challenges when translations are unknown and when the type of word is emotionally charged in the native or second language. Implications for enhancing the learning of words in a new language and facilitating the development of translation skills will be discussed, in light of new findings that suggest that providing a learning context that engages survival processing and adaptive memory can reduce the processing and retrieval costs involved in learning to attach new words to known concepts in emerging bilingual speakers (Kazanas, Altarriba, & O’Brien, 2020).