Translanguaging and the Bilingual Brain

In the bilingual language processing system, the two language channels interact with one another which can lead to cases of one or the other language becoming more dominant, as well as switching between two languages, and modifications of linguistic forms (Kecskes and Papp 2000). The umbrella term I use to describe this mixing of two separate languages is translanguaging which Canagarajah defines as “the ability of multilingual speakers to shuttle between languages, treating the diverse languages that form their repertoire as an integrated system” (2011: 401). The difference between translanguaging and code-switching is that code-switching assumes that the bilingual has two separate monolingual codes corresponding to each of their two languages that can be used without reference to each other. Translanguaging, on the other hand, indicates that bilinguals have a single linguistic system from which they select lexical, syntactic and pragmatic features in order to communicate more effectively (Celic and Seltzer 2011). Likewise, there is evidence that supports how translanguaging is beneficial for language acquisition and ease of communication because individuals are able to express themselves more freely in an environment such as the classroom (Garcia 2009).

Numerous case studies (e.g. Bialystok 1998, Polinsky 2015, Peal and Lambert 1962, Lambert 1977, Gonzales 1995) outline the enhanced cognitive abilities as a result of bilingualism such as divergent thinking and creativity (Kharkhurin 2007), metalinguistic awareness (Friesen and Bialystok 2012), improved memory skills (Pavlenko 1999), multitasking ability (Poarch and Bialystok 2015) and arithmetic skills (Rusconi et al. 2007). However, most of these studies compare how well monolingual and bilingual people perform a variety of cognitive tasks. I am interested in exploring the reading comprehension of bilinguals who have different degrees of proficiency. The main focus is to compare how well bilinguals process monolingual utterances as opposed to translingual utterances.

I carried out a survey with 100 students from the English Department at Heidelberg University, in order to select the translingual utterances and developed a theoretical model of translanguaging according to various morpho-syntactic features. The methodology I have chosen to test how the brain processes translingual utterances and evaluate the cognitive processes involved is by measuring eye movement. Eye-tracking technology has been used in numerous experiments in order to portray dual language activation in bilingual speakers (see Ju & Luce, 2004; Marian & Spivey, 2003a, 2003b; Weber & Cutler, 2000).

My research objective is to compare the outcome of a bilingual person reading a monolingual text as opposed to a text written using two languages within the same communicative event. If my findings show that translanguaging is actually beneficial for faster and more efficient language processing, this could have a significant impact on how translanguaging is used in the educational system, establishing a link between language mixing and cognition and potentially a decrease in the social stigma associated with language mixing. 

Fewer regressions and fixation points when reading a translingual utterance as opposed to a monolingual one, may indicate that translanguaging does not in fact have a cognitive cost and may very well be beneficial for language processing. For instance, when an utterance contains a translingual lexical item such as Mutter’s, with an L1 root (German- Mutter) and L2 inflectional morpheme (English possessive ending -‘s), if the eyes of the study participant do not flicker back to where the boundary between the two languages is, as shown by the saccades, resulting in a slower ERP (estimated response time), this might point towards the fact that translanguaging does not incur cognitive costs. This is also an example of violating the standard rules of Code-Switching, which, according to Wei (2018) say that "function words such as be and possessive markers such as the English 's are not to be switched." Therefore, translanguaging as a dynamic meaning-making process better describes this linguistic phenomenon. 

Another advantage of using eye tracking is measuring the pupil size. According to Kang et al. (2014), the pupil dilation response is linked to how the brain processes information i.e. if the task is more difficult, there is an increase in pupil dilation response. If the pupil dilation response is greater when the participant is reading translingual utterances, it could be an indication that the brain is working harder to comprehend the information. 

The data shall be obtained using the SMI RED 250 Eyetracker at the Heidelberg University Language and Cognition Lab to measure the sentence processing of bilinguals and how comprehending monolingual and translingual texts may impact cognition.

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