Theory Thursday: Mental Dictionaries

October 20, 2011 / by Kimberly Cortes

I’d like to share a couple funny and cute linguistics stories in this blog. I will be talking about how bilinguals recognize and speak words in each of their languages. What? That doesn’t sound cute? Just hang in there. I promise that this will be a cute but informative linguistic blog.

I am the mother of four children who are all bilingual in English and Spanish. Some time ago I was sitting with my now nine-year old son (I think he was 7 or maybe 8 at the time) as he read to me “The Digging-est Dog” by Al Perkins. He was doing an excellent job, but when he got to the page that reads, “I dug up fences, I dug up gates” without realizing his mistake he very confidently read, “I dug up fences, I dug up cats.”

So why would my son read “cats” instead of “gates"? Obviously “cats” and “gates” don't rhyme or even really look similar, at least not in English. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, my children are bilingual in English and Spanish. Well, the Spanish word for "cats" is "gatos." Ahhh, you say! “Gatos” and “gates” look very much alike! It is easy to see how he could mistake “gates” for this other word “gatos.” What makes this case even more interesting is that while his brain apparently recognized the Spanish word “gatos” he produced the English translation for this word: “cats.” Although my son was reading in English and produced an English word, “cats,” it is evident that his Spanish lexicon (or mental dictionary or vocabulary list) was still very much active.

On another occasion, my older son asked me if he could fill and use a salt shaker I had brought back from Cuernavaca, Mexico. To which I replied, “No! You can’t use that! It’s a memory!” Does it seem strange that I referred to a salt shaker as a “memory”? Well, it may help to know that the word for souvenir in Spanish is “recuerdo” which literally translates to…you got it…“memory.”

Yet another time, I recall shopping for a digital video camera with my husband. We had picked out the camera, a bunch of editing software and additional accessories. My husband approached the salesman who was assisting us and asked, “So, how much for todo?” The salesman just smiled and continued to talk about the different features of the products we had chosen. My husband asked again, “How much for todo?” I was standing right beside my husband and could not figure out why the salesman was not answering him. Until of course it dawned on me that while I understood my husband’s question, the salesman who obviously did not speak Spanish, did not, because my husband was mixing the two languages: English and Spanish.

The focus of research in bilingualism for a long time was whether or not bilinguals have a single lexicon (mental dictionary) that comprises all of the words they know in both of their languages, or separate lexicons. And additionally, whether access to these is selective or not. Multiple theories to address these questions have been proposed.

One of these, the hierarchical model, proposes that the lexicons are combined at the conceptual level but separate at the word representational level. Basically bilinguals have separate “dictionaries” but that the entry for a particular word in each language links back to the same "meaning" or "concept."

Another theory is the Bilingual Interactive Activation Model (BIA). This theory argues that letter strands activate possible lexical candidates (words) in both languages, which then compete for activation.

As with many questions in the field of Linguistics and specifically bilingualism, whether bilinguals have one or two “mental dictionaries” and how they access these is still not fully understood. However, for me as a Linguist it is exciting to be able to point to and analyze these everyday aspects of real life and apply it to my passion for languages.

Have you experienced a situation where you interchanged your "mental dictionaries"?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Kimberly Cortes

Written by Kimberly Cortes

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