How the bilingual mind handles words from two languages [Transcript]

July 4, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about words. How does a bilingual mind deal with words from two languages? And I share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy. A concrete tip you can put into practice straight away to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic. And it’s the last one of the season. Because after this episode we’ve just one more to go until the second season of Kletsheads in English is over. I’m not sure yet whether there’ll be a third, but if you do have any suggestions for topics you’d like to hear more about, or if you have any feedback about the season, do let me know. Were the tips that I shared in the Kletsheads Quick and Easy is useful? What did you think of Hot off the Press and would you like to hear more episodes of Kletsheads? If so, once every two weeks? Or would you prefer once a month? Or are you not really that bothered? Let me know by sending an email. The address is You can also drop me a line via the website or get in touch via social media, our handel is @kletsheads. Now on with the podcast.

Sharon Unsworth: Does your toilet have a saddle? Asked us. And if I ask you whether you wearing a vest, do you think of a piece of underwear or a jacket? In our house it might be either. And if you burp after eating, what do you say? Excuse me maybe, or pardon, but probably not horses. That’s what our family sometimes says. And I’m pretty certain that we wouldn’t be saying any of these things in English if we didn’t also know Dutch. Bilingual children sometimes say things that their monolingual peers would never say. And this is the same for adults, too. They don’t always know certain words in each of the two or more languages, and that’s something we’ve talked about in previous episodes of the podcast. In many cases when bilingual children do know the word in question and there really are many cases, they can’t always think of it straight away. And again, this also holds for adults. I speak from experience here as someone who sometimes has to use Google Translate from Dutch to English to remember what a word is in my native language. As a parent, teacher or speech language therapist, you may wonder whether all of this is normal. And the answer is yes. Being creative with words, not always finding the right one and sometimes saying things in ways monolingual would never do is quite normal. In this episode, we explain why this is the case, how we know this exactly, and what this tells us about how the bilingual mind deals with words from two languages. We’re going to do this together with Elly Koutamanis. Elly works with me at Radboud University in Nijmegen, where she does research on exactly this topic. You might have guessed it from a surname, Koutamanis, Elly is of Greek origin. She was born here in the Netherlands and grew up here in a family where Greek was spoken. And so she’s bilingual herself. I started by asking Elly if she recognized herself in any of the examples I just mentioned.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, I definitely recognized myself in that, especially not being able to come up with a word. So, as you said, I was born in the Netherlands. I’ve lived here all my life. So my Dutch is definitely better than my Greek. So especially in Greek, it’s very often happens that I know a word, maybe I’ve said it yesterday, but I can’t think of it today.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I have that in English too, actually, after so many years in the Netherlands. But what was that like as a kid growing up then? Was that the same?

Elly Koutamanis: Yes. I especially remember when we we would always go to Greece for the for the summer. So the first few days in Greece, I just couldn’t express myself. And that always felt a bit difficult. And then the first days, maybe back home again, back in the Netherlands, then I would still.. I still wanted to keep on speaking Greek, even though we were back in the Netherlands and I was meeting Dutch friends again. Yeah. Can be a bit annoying sometimes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Well, presumably when you were over in Greece in the summer, after a few days you were able to find all those words that were there?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, yeah. So it just takes some time to get into the Greek..

Sharon Unsworth: The Greek groove.

Elly Koutamanis: Language, the Greek groove. And then. Yeah, then it would be fine.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So if we think about all the words that bilingual children have in their, in their head, have in their mind, from each of the languages, then you’ve basically got two options, right? So either you’ve got like two bins, as it were, within one bin the words from one language. So for you, one, one Greek bin and a Dutch bin. Or you just got one big bin with them all in it, all the words from the two different languages and together. Which one is the is the right one when it comes to how we should think about how a bilingual mind deals with words from two different languages?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, so that’s a very important question indeed for the bilingualism research that we do. And yeah, you might think that it’s easier to have two separate bins. So then you just decide, now I’m going to speak my one language now the other. But in fact, it seems to be the case that there’s one large bin where all the words that you know from all the languages that you know or are stored together.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So I think people listening might think, well, that seems a bit chaotic, a bit of a mess. Is that how we should see it?

Elly Koutamanis: Well, maybe sometimes. But. So it’s important, I think, to realize what knowing a word actually means, what kind of information we’re talking about. So the most important levels, I think, to distinguish is that we know word meanings and we know word forms. So the word themselves, the words that we use and we know which word belongs to which meaning. So then, yeah, if you know the word or in two different languages, it’s actually more efficient, I like to think, to store them in one place because they’re connected to the same meaning, they belong to the same meaning. So you just have, I always draw it as a triangle. So you have one meaning. Well, for example, a cat, we can have the meaning of a cat, just the animal. You know what it looks like? Yeah, that’s the same in all languages, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: The concept?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. So there’s one part of that triangle and then the other two are the two different words that you know. So it’s just stored in one system you could say.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I’ll show that diagram in the shownotes, I think. So we’ve got the top say the concept, the cat and then for you it would be kat in Dutch and I know you’ve told me this before, but I’ve forgotten. What is this? What is the Greek word for cat?

Elly Koutamanis: Rata. With a very difficult r-sound.

Sharon Unsworth: Rata. Rata. Yeah, yeah. Okay. Yeah.

Elly Koutamanis: So, yeah. So you have the concept, the idea of a cat, the meaning of the word cat, and then I would have the word rata and the word kat connected both through the same concept to the same meaning.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay. And so how do we know this? So I know, most of the research in this area has been done with bilingual adults. So maybe you can tell us a bit about what we know from that research.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, well, words like cat, kat are actually very commonly used in research because they’re actually kind of a special word. I think in all the languages that we’ve mentioned so far, that means exactly the same thing. And the word form, the way that you pronounce it, is also kind of similar or actually very similar, cat and kat. So these words are called cognates. Translations that also sound alike and in research that yeah, that has especially been done with bilingual adults. People are, for example, shown pictures of maybe a cat and a dog that’s very different in the two languages. So it’s not a cognate and the people would have to name the picture, say what they’re seeing in the picture as fast as they can. And then if we measure their the time it takes them to start speaking to from the time that they see the picture until they start saying the word. You can see that a very often that words like cats or cognates are produced earlier than than other words that are not related to the form in the other language.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay. So if you’re if you’re a native speaker of Dutch and you know English as well, you’ll respond more quickly when you see the picture cat because it sounds like and it means the same as kat in Dutch, whereas for dog, which is hond in Dutch and obviously dog in English, you would respond a bit slower, right?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. Yeah. So all the information that you have points to the same meaning, you know, if that makes sense. But yeah, all the information sort of converges to that makes it easier.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. You see a picture and the fact that there’s a lot of overlap between the form, the form is essentially it’s not identical, but it’s very, very similar because you’re two languages. It means that you can more quickly access that form, right? Yes. Yes, yeah.

Elly Koutamanis: You can use the information from the other languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Can you tell us how this then shows what we said before that your two languages are actually together in one bin, as it were, rather than completely separated from each other?

Elly Koutamanis: Yes. Maybe that’s easier with another type of experiment. Yeah, that’s called lexical decision where you read words or you hear words, you have to say if it’s a real word or not. So then again, we see that people who speak Dutch and English would respond faster to cat than to dog. And I think in this other direction, it’s a bit easier to explain. You hear the word kat, so then you recognize that as cat because it sounds so much like cat. You sort of recognize that. That, too. So you recognize that it’s definitely a word in both languages. And there’s yeah, there’s no conflict between those two words instead..

Sharon Unsworth: They’re both like pointing in the same direction.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. Yeah. So you recognize it as maybe more than one existing word, but they all mean the same thing. They’re all existing words in all the languages that you speak, basically.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so there are two different ways in which we can find out how the words are organized in the mind of a bilingual person. Of course, you’ve got all the kinds of words, right, words that sound the same but mean something different. My favorite example, which I know we’ve talked about before, is acorn. So if you left listening in English acorn, as you know, the small nut of the oak tree, whereas in Dutch eekhoorn, which sounds very different, I don’t know if you could hear that I was actually speaking Dutch. Eekhoorn is actually the Dutch word for squirrel. It’s a source of great confusion in our house at times, whether we’re talking about squirrels or acorns. In part, I think, because they’re actually kind of related to each other as well. Right, because squirrels go around burying acorns. What happens with those kinds of words? Because as I said, you know, for us, it’s a it’s almost well, it’s a source of confusion, I think is a bit overstating it. But it’s definitely sometimes we’re like, which word do you mean?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. And that’s exactly what we see in experiments as well. Yeah, it goes very fast. I think that’s also important to know with these kinds of experiments. You’re really talking about milliseconds here, but yeah, that’s basically what would happen then. So in these lexical decision experiments, so where you hear a word and you have to decide if it’s a real Dutch word, you hear eekhoorn. You have to think. Okay, so you recognize that as the Dutch word eekhoorn, but you also recognize it as the English acorn. And then there is a bit of a conflict going on because you think, okay, you sort of have to maybe not as consciously as I’m explaining it now, but you sort of have to make a decision. Is this the Dutch word or the English word? Which one are we talking about right now? So then it takes a little bit longer to, for example, decide if it’s a real Dutch word or not. Yeah, because you also have this English word in your mind.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. And again, like you said, it’s important to point out to the listeners that this is really something that happens unconsciously. I mean, it can happen very consciously at times, right? Like I said, in our house, it’s like, oh, which oh no, it’s the acorn-eekhoorn thing again. But in the experiments that we do in the lab, as it were, then it’s really a matter of milliseconds and really, you know, something that maybe people are very aware of. And in fact, we try and create experiments that they’re not aware of this right when they’re doing it.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, of course they don’t. Especially these these false friends, these eekhoorn-acorn words. I mean, they’re kind of accidental, usually. They’re not super common. So you wouldn’t want to put too many in a row in an experiment or people will start to notice it. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. So going back to that first kind of way, the cognates, when we’re talking about cat and kat in English and Dutch respectively, some of those are more similar than others. Right? So for example, you’ve also got Table and Tafel, which I think even if you don’t know Dutch tafel, you might in a certain context at least be able to guess that it means table. So there definitely there’s some similarity, but they’re not as similar. Do we see the same kinds of effects for all these different kinds of words? So in other words, does it matter how similar words are or not?

Elly Koutamanis: Yes. So this has been studied in bilingual adults. And yeah, it does matter in the sense that these cognate effects seem to be a bit gradual. So the more similar the two words are, the stronger the effect becomes. But that’s not to say that there’s there’s no effect if the words are not as similar. So it will still happen. But it’s just a smaller effect.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And what about comparing languages with each other? Right. So because some languages are a lot more similar to each other than others. So, for example, German and Dutch are really similar to each other, Spanish and Italian are similar to each other, at least when you compare it with German and Chinese or Spanish and Arabic, does that seem to matter? And when it comes to, you know, the findings with respect to these different kinds of words.

Elly Koutamanis: Actually, we don’t really know the simple answer to that question yet. I think there are many studies that many experiments have been done with. For example, Dutch and English, very often English, yeah. Also a lot of Catalan-Spanish, for example. So those are also very similar. So I think sort of twofold problem here, actually. So we don’t have that much knowledge yet about other types of language combinations or not as much as maybe the more closely related languages. And the other thing is that it’s kind of difficult to distinguish, I think, the overall language closeness or language similarity from those specific cognates effects or from the specific words.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So we know that, we know that there are effects for these words that are very similar to each other, but we don’t know whether that’s really to do with those specific words or just more generally that languages, some languages are more closely related to each other than other pairs of languages. I think there is work looking at, for example, Chinese-English bilinguals showing that you do see an effect though, the effects still exist across distant languages.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, that’s true. That’s important. So it’s more what I was saying is more about is the effects more noticeable in Dutch and German than in English and Chinese. But yet there are is some work that shows that it’s it does happen in other languages as well.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And like you said as well, I think this is also a reflection of the dominance of English in the research world as well as, you know, more generally in the world. And the lack of research looking at many many of the other, what, 6000 languages that are at least now still with us. We’re going to leave our conversation with Lee now to hear another Kletsheads Quick and Easy, a concrete tip you can put into practice straightaway to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.


Kletsheads Quick and Easy

Sharon Unsworth: Today’s Kletsheads Quick and Easy is from the PEaCH Project, a European project that provides advice and support to parents of bilingual children. You might recognize the name because we spoke about this project earlier in the season in episode six, when we spoke to Ute Limacher-Riebold. The project provides a range of resources such as a digital handbook, videos and materials for activities and games that you can play with your bilingual child to support the language development. So the Kletsheads Quick and Easy for today is: play a game with your child. This gives them a great opportunity to practice the heritage language and learn new vocabulary. And it also offers you as a parent, the chance to share your own cultural heritage. You can do this in many ways. You can find a game that you used to play yourself as a kid or a game that’s typical of your culture. With young children, you can do jigsaw puzzles and whilst you’re figuring out what goes where, ask your child what he or she sees. On the PEaCH website, you can even download pictures that you can cut into pieces yourself to make your own puzzle. Or you can look for a picture yourself on the internet, for example of a city or landscape or something else from the country that you come from. With older children, you can play the game word chain. So this works in the following way. The first person starts with a word, for example, pig, and the next person has to think of a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. So pig ends with G. So you might say grapefruit as the next word. This is also a nice game for in the car, by the way. On the PEaCH Project website,, you’ll find dozens of other ideas.

Sharon Unsworth: The website is currently available in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian. And as we heard from Ute, the idea is that at least in principle, the materials will be made available in the 24 languages of the European Union. The link’s in the show notes. And if you haven’t done so already, listen to the episode I just mentioned with Ute, where she also talks about a new YouTube channel where she and her colleagues also share many ideas of a games that you can play with your bilingual child. So that was this episode’s Kletsheads Quick and Easy. Play a game with your child.

Sharon Unsworth: All right. So we’ve really focused a lot on what we know from adults. Let’s zoom in now on children and especially it’s not only an age difference, right? Because most of the work that’s been done on bilingual adults are actually adults who have learned a second language as an adult themselves or are really second language learners of the language in question. Whereas children often are growing up with their two languages from birth or from very early, early on. So the learning, the two in parallel, do we see the effects that you’ve talked about now with the cognates and the false friends with children as well?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, so there is a lot more work with bilingual adults and especially these later learners of of English. For example, there at least these effects are very robust. We see them all the time, but in children there hasn’t been that much research yet. What we do know, I think, suggests that there are at least the same kinds of effects going on. So this same kind of sharedness in the mind, I don’t think there are many studies that really compare children with adults. So there might be differences that we can’t tell yet, but as far as we know, and I think also makes sense to me at least, that the broad way that that this is organized in your mind is the same if you’re learning a language later or if you’re learning it from birth.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So at least as you get more proficient I think for the, for the, for the late learners.

Elly Koutamanis: Right. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Yeah. There are so many differences between bilingual speakers anyway that yeah, makes it also difficult to compare sometimes.

Sharon Unsworth: So, so basically then bilingual children like bilingual adults, we think they have this one bin with the languages in their organized. It’s not just a big literally a bin where you throw in loads of rubbish, it’s a well-organized bin, right? So things are organized, like you said before, and concepts and the words are linked to each other. So doing research with kids is obviously quite different than doing it with adults. Adults will sit and listen and do pretty much more or less what you tell them to do, and they understand what it means to do something really quickly or say whether a word is a real word or not. That’s a lot different with children. So can you tell us a bit about some of the ways in which we look into this question of how the words are organized in the bilingual mind with children?

Elly Koutamanis: Yes. A method that has been used with children from two years old. It’s called eye tracking. And I’ve also used this for children that were a bit older, around six years old. So you can use it for for multiple ages. And what it does is that we can use special kinds of cameras where we can measure where people are looking on a screen or whatever. So what you would do with these very young kids is, of course, you can’t let them name pictures or anything. They’re just too young for that. So instead they would hear words while they’re looking at pictures, for example, they would hear cats, and on the screen they would see two pictures, a cat and something completely different, like a chair or something. So even in these very young kids, where they are looking can already tell us something about what’s going on in their mind. So they would, for example, measure if they’re looking towards the cat longer than towards the other picture. And then that would suggest that at least they recognise the word and the picture. So instead of telling us the word like we would do with adults, so naming the picture, this is a way to see that in very young children, if they can at least understand the word, know what it means, see what’s going on in the picture, and then the type of experiments. So you wouldn’t just let them hear one word, just the cat, but sequences of words. So, for example, they would first hear the word kat in Dutch and then hear the word cat. So the translation of the same word. What some of the studies have shown is that then children would actually look towards the picture of the cat more or earlier on compared to when they just heard another words. Papier that means paper. Then they hear cats. So that doesn’t have anything to do with each other. And then children look towards the cat a little bit less than when they had just heard it. Yeah. The translation of the same word in their other language. Mm hmm. So it’s maybe a bit abstract, but what that basically means is that when a child hears kat. Yeah, that sort of. And they recognize it as the Dutch word that they know, but because they also speak another language that’s already starts to sort of activate or wake up the word in their other language because they’re sort of connected to each other in the mind.

Sharon Unsworth: In the way you explained at the start, right?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Because they mean the same thing. They’re connected to the same meaning or the same concept. So yeah. So, so activating waking up the word kat also activates the word cat. It takes them less time to process this word that they’re hearing and the pictures that they’re seeing. So it’s more it’s more active in their minds already from the translation they just heard.

Sharon Unsworth: And so then they look more quickly or longer at the right picture, as it were, compared with when they’ve heard something completely unrelated beforehand?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And of course, we can use this method to look at all the ways in which words are related to each other. Right. Like the words that are related because they sound similar or you know, the child has to recognize cat. They’ll do it quicker if they’ve heard dog compared with if they heard chair.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Because it’s not just these direct translations or cognates that are connected to each other, but yeah, dog and cats, they’re both animals, so you often associate them with each other. And so there’s also a connection between these kinds of words. And also we see that within the language. But also, yeah, these sort of meaning related words between different languages or also words that share some part of their form that maybe start with the same sounds. Even if they don’t mean anything related to each other, we can still see effects of sort of this connection between words.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, maybe you can tell us because you found that right in some of the work that you’ve done, looking at children growing up with Greek and and Dutch, maybe you can give us an example from that what would make it a little bit more concrete for people?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. The example that comes to my mind is actually it’s a bit unpleasant. Maybe tafel in Dutch, table, and tafos in Greek is a grave, so maybe not the nicest word, but it’s just eh. I think it’s a very clear one though. Yeah. So you really have this taf in the beginning of the words. So they were first hear tafos and then they hear tafel and see a picture of a table and something unrelated. And then we measured how long it took them or how much they were looking at the picture of the table compared to the the distractions or the distractor that was also on the screen. What I found is that there is a connection between these words, but actually what happens then is that in the beginning they look towards the table, tafel, a little bit less because yeah, that’s when words are similar in sound or share some of their sound. Actually, it can be a bit more difficult instead of easier.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm.

Elly Koutamanis: And actually, that’s very similar to what we were talking about earlier with these false friends. So you have to think a bit about how you recognize two words, one from two different languages. And you have to to think a little bit more about which one you actually mean in that moment.

Sharon Unsworth: So if a child he hears tafos in Greek and then he hears tafel in Dutch because they’ve just heard tafos and tafel is the same. It’s almost like, well, oh, it can’t be tafel. That was what I just heard.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And of course, the connections even more. I mean, if people are thinking, well, that’s okay, that seems maybe a little bit complicated, but I suppose, you know, it’s just they sound similar. But you found in your data that actually it’s even more complicated, right? Because that connection between words that sound similar even happens when you don’t mention both words.

Elly Koutamanis: Yes so we used two Dutch words, wiel and rok, that means wheel and skirt so those don’t have anything to do with each other, right?

Sharon Unsworth: No, I don’t think so. No, not for most people anyway.

Elly Koutamanis: But for a Dutch-Greek bilingual child, actually, they do have something in common because the translation of wiel-wheel is róda. So that starts with this ro-sound that we also see in rok for skirt.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha.

Elly Koutamanis: So then what happened? Or we could see in these in the children’s eye movements was that when they would hear wiel because that’s connected to the Greek translation róda, that that gets activated, that gets woken up a bit in the mind, but then that starts to interact with rok that they heard afterwards. And then we have these two words that have a similar sound. So it’s actually more difficult to you have to think a bit, which one do we mean at this moment in this situation? So even with the children, here are two Dutch words that have nothing in common in Dutch, we could still see effects of the fact that they know Greek as well, that there’s also Greek in their minds in the in the system with all the words that they know.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. Just like one big network, right? Where things are related to each other, not only on the basis of what they mean. So, like the concepts that they refer to. So the cats that we had at the start, or the wheel in the example we just spoke about, but also in how they sound, rok and róda.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Are also somehow related to each other in that network because they start with the same sounds.

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So it’s it’s complicated, right?

Elly Koutamanis: It is. Yeah. It’s pretty abstract, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And you know, like we said at the start, in a certain sense, some of these things that we find in research in the lab are not necessarily things that you would see in real life. But they do tell us something very important about the way in which the words are organized in a bilinguals mind. Now we know that there’s a lot of variation in how children behave, well in general anyway, but also in these experiments and whether all children show the same effects. So there are differences, individual differences between children. What explains these differences? Do we know much about that?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah. So as you said, there are many differences between children anyway and between bilinguals as well. So you can imagine bilingual children where you’re just learning one language. I mean, there’s still a lot of variation, but when you’re learning two languages at the same time, you don’t always get the same amount of input in both of the languages. Maybe what I did a lot as a child, my parents would speak Greek to me and I would speak Dutch to them. So there’s just way more options for variation, and it also changes over time. On holiday in Greece, I would be hearing more Greek and speaking it more because there is so much variation. There’s also still a lot that we don’t know, but especially proficiency. So how well you can speak or understand the language is something that has been shown at least in adults very often, that it it has an effect on how how active the languages are in your mind. So how easily you activate that that words from that language. And I think we still have a lot of work to do for child research. I think we have some evidence, some studies that have found these same type of effects.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So it’s like the better the two languages are, then the more likely one is going to help the other or one is going to interfere with the other. Is it, as it were?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And does it matter how many languages a child knows? I don’t think we really know much, do we, about whether a trilingual is behave differently from bilinguals?

Elly Koutamanis: No, not. Not really. So I think there we have even more variation of course, the more languages you put in the mix, the more yeah. The more options there are, the more different types of input you might be getting. But I think in principle, I wouldn’t really think that there would be a difference between bilinguals or trilingual or multilinguals. And again, here, have to go back to what we know from adults. There it also seems to really depend on how well you speak the languages, so not really how many you speak, but how well you speak them, how often you’re hearing them in your daily life. And I think the more languages you speak, the less likely, maybe on average it is that you speak all these languages very well. Yes. It’s not really about how many languages you speak, but how how well you speak them.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So, I mean, we’ve spoken about bilingualism before on the podcasts. And one of the main things that came out in that episode was that the factors that affect bilinguals are very the same ones effect trilinguals as well. So there’s here again, there’s no reason to believe that trilinguals are differ in any significant way from bilinguals. Right. The same factors seem to play a role. Yeah. So at the start then I said, you know, one of the things that characterizes being bilingual actually for children and for adults is that you can’t always find the right word in the right language. You said that yourself as well, right when you were talking about speaking Greek. So given everything that we’ve talked about in today’s episode, how do we explain that then that as bilinguals we can’t always find the right word and the right language or so quickly?

Elly Koutamanis: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think if I would have to sort of characterize it as that, we just have more as bilinguals are multilingual, we just have more information in our minds. That’s more things, more words to to consider, to think about all at the same time, because you really can’t turn off your other language.

Sharon Unsworth: And like Elly explained earlier, not being able to turn off your other language can sometimes lead you up the garden path. Think back to the example of acorn and eekhoorn. But it can also sometimes help you because you’re better able to recognize words in another language more quickly or more easily. And it can also lead to some pretty creative language use. So the reason my family sometimes say horses instead of pardon as in pardon me, is because paarden is the Dutch word for horses. I can’t honestly remember how, but this at one point became a joke in our family. So this is one of the false friends we spoke about earlier. Words which sound or look very similar but mean something different. Vest is also such an example. Vest is a piece of underwear and top without sleeves that you wear under your clothes to keep you warm in the winter, at least in British English. But in Dutch vest is the word for a jacket, something you put on top of your clothes and not under them. What’s the deal then, with the toilet saddle I mentioned at the start? Well, this is actually quite an interesting puzzle. My daughter started saying saddle for the toilet seat when she was quite young and has used it pretty much consistently ever since. Her brother even says it now too. Why exactly? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m pretty certain it’s because she also knows Dutch. So the Dutch word for seat like a bike seat, something, of course, that children in the Netherlands know about from a very early age is a fietszadel. So fiets is the Dutch word for bike, and zadel is the word for seat in this case. Zadel sounds, of course, like saddle in English. And so somehow she ended up using this word for a different kind of seat. The one on the toilet. Now, of course, I have no idea whether this is really what happened. If you have any other suggestions or if you know of any English speaking children who also say saddle for the toilet seat but are not speakers of Dutch at the same time, do let me know. It’s important to bear in mind with all of the examples and research findings we’ve spoken about in this episode, that whilst some of this happens very consciously, like our joke with pardon and horses, most of it does not. And the differences we spoke about in the way bilinguals respond to different kinds of words are really a matter of milliseconds. So we’re talking about very tiny differences. In many cases, you won’t even notice them when you or your children are going about your day to day business. But they do offer us a window into the bilingual mind and how this deals with words from two languages. That’s it for this episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with the last episode of the season when in Let’s Klets, I talk to Francesca la Morgia from Mother Tongues in Ireland about bilingualism and the arts and in Hot off the Press, I tell you about some of my own research when I share the results of the projects we carried out last year on the impact of the pandemic on bilingual families. Until then.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

Comments are closed.