Bilinguals’ twisted tongues: Frequency lag or interference?

Chuchu Li*, Matthew Goldrick, Tamar H. Gollan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Though bilinguals know many more words than monolinguals, within each language bilinguals exhibit some processing disadvantages, extending to sublexical processes specifying the sound structure of words (Gollan & Goldrick, Cognition, 125(3), 491-497, 2012). This study investigated the source of this bilingual disadvantage. Spanish-English bilinguals, Mandarin-English bilinguals, and English monolinguals repeated tongue twisters composed of English nonwords. Twister materials were made up of sound sequences that are unique to the English language (nonoverlapping) or sound sequences that are highly similar—yet phonetically distinct—in the two languages for the bilingual groups (overlapping). If bilingual disadvantages in tongue-twister production result from competition between phonetic representations in their two languages, bilinguals should have more difficulty selecting an intended target when similar sounds are activated in the overlapping sound sequences. Alternatively, if bilingual disadvantages reflect the relatively reduced frequency of use of sound sequences, bilinguals should have greater difficulty in the nonoverlapping condition (as the elements of such sound sequences are limited to a single language). Consistent with the frequency-lag account, but not the competition account, both Spanish-English and Mandarin-English bilinguals were disadvantaged in tonguetwister production only when producing twisters with nonoverlapping sound sequences. Thus, the bilingual disadvantage in tongue-twister production likely reflects reduced frequency of use of sound sequences specific to each language.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)600-610
Number of pages11
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 6 2017


  • Bilingualism
  • Phonological processing
  • Speech error
  • Tongue twister

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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