Thinking in another language – Key points about Second Language Processing

It is common knowledge that, in order to speak a second language like a native speaker, you should think in that language. What does “thinking in a second language” actually mean? In the field of study of Second Language Acquisition, this is known as Second Language Processing.

What it is

Research in Linguistics differentiates between language representations and language processing. Language representations are the aspects that you explicitly know about a language, whereas language processing refers to “the mental processes involved while reading or listening to words or sentences in real time” (Marinis 2003: 144).

Why it is important

Research on bilingual sentence processing is particularly interesting since in the bilingual linguistic system the “native language (L1) and the second language (L2) appear to be active simultaneously during reading, listening, and speaking” (Linck et al. 2009: 1507). Hence, bilinguals need to inhibit the language they are not planning to use. This results in cognitive advantages in executive functions.

(Note that I am adopting a broad definition of bilingualism which includes every speaker that uses more than one language in his/her everyday life with different levels of proficiency).

How it is studied

Researchers employ online techniques in order to investigate second language processing. Online means that these tasks describe “how linguistic representations are constructed in real time during language comprehension and production” (Clahsen et al. 2010: 22). Examples of such techniques are self-paced reading tasks, priming experiments, lexical decisions studies and eye tracking experiments for psycholinguistic studies; ERP, PET and fMRI for neuro-linguistic studies. The key aspect of these techniques is that they gather information while you are processing language, as opposed to behavioural studies and offline tasks which collect data about your judgements or reflections on language and therefore allow your metalinguistic and explicit knowledge to interfere with your decisions.

What we know so far about second language processing

There are several theories about the differences between L1 and L2 processing. Without going into too much technical detail, the extent of the difference between the way in which you process your native language and your L2 varies according to a range of factors which include: the age of acquisition of L2, the degree of mastery and proficiency of L2, the level of exposure to the language (Perani and Abutalebi 2005). Thus, the existing differences are due to additional resource demands, such as working memory and speed of processing, and result in a slower and less automatized processing. However, another trend of research claims that L1 and L2 processing are fundamentally different and L2 processing relies more on “semantic, associative and surface information [rather] than on syntactic cues to interpretation” (Clahsen and Felser 2006: 565).

The current state of research agrees that complex syntax and the syntactic-pragmatic interface are the language subdomains in which L2 processing differs from native-like processing even for near-native speakers of the L2 (namely, speakers who are at their ultimate attainment in their L2) (Clahsen and Felser 2006; Sorace and Filiaci 2006).

What does this mean after all?

After reading these paragraphs, you are probably still confused and don’t know exactly what kind of real language examples I am talking about. Let’s then have a look at one (the example is taken from Dussias and Sagarra 2007: 101):

An armed robber shot the sister of the actor who was on the balcony.

Who was on the balcony? The sister or the actor? The way you resolve this ambiguity depends on your L1 and on all the aforementioned factors. Monolingual English speakers tend to prefer attaching the relative clause to the actor. The same sentence in Spanish would be as follows:

Un ladrón armado le disparó a la hermana del actor que estaba en el balcón.

Monolingual Spanish speakers prefer attaching the relative clause to the sister.

Where you can find more about it

You can read more about current studies in Second Language Processing in academic journals like Studies in Second Language Acquisition; Bilingualism: Language and Cognition; TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences; Second Language Research; Language Learning; and Applied Psycholinguistics.

And to finish

This is the last article before Christmas, and I have thought about adding a Christmassy twist to it.

Santa Claus and Rudolph are flying. While Santa drinks mulled wine, he eats mince pies.

Who is eating mince pies? Santa or Rudolph? Share your answers in the comments below!




Clahsen, H. & Felser, C. 2006. How native-like is non-native language processing? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol. 10 No. 12: 564-570.

Clahsen, H., Felser, C., Neubauer, K., Sato, M., Silva R. 2010. Morphological Structure in Native and Nonnative Language Processing. Language Learning 60, 1: 21–43.

Dussias, P. & Sagarra, N. 2007. The effect of exposure on syntactic parsing in Spanish–English bilinguals. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10: 101–116.

Linck, J. A., Kroll, J. F. and Sunderman, G. 2009. Losing Access to the Native Language While Immersed in a Second Language – Evidence for the Role of Inhibition in Second-Language Learning. Psychological Science Volume 20 Number 12: 1507-1515.

Marinis, T. 2003. Psycholinguistic techniques in second language acquisition research. Second language research 19, 2: 144–161.

Perani, D. & Abutalebi, J. 2005. The neural basis of first and second language processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 15: 202-206.

Sorace, A. & Filiaci, F. (2006). Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian. Second Language Research, 22(3): 339-368.


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