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Literacy in adulthood: Reading in two languages.

Chapter 12
Literacy in adulthood: Reading in two languages
Judith F. Kroll, Jason Gullifer, and Megan Zirnstein
Department of Psychology
Program in Linguistics
Center for Language Science
The Pennsylvania State University
In E. Nicoladis & S. Montanari (Eds.), Lifespan Perspectives on Bilingualism.
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and Walter De Gruyter.
Direct correspondence to:
Judith F. Kroll
Department of Psychology
416 Moore Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802 USA
Phone: 814-863-0126
Fax: 814-863-7002
Adult literacy in two languages !
Literacy in adulthood: Reading in two languages
Adult bilinguals who are proficient in a second language (L2) come to their bilingualism
in different ways. Early bilinguals who have acquired two languages from childhood may read
proficiently in each of their two languages or only in one, depending on the circumstances in
which they use each language. Late bilinguals who acquire the L2 past early childhood typically
come to the task of L2 learning with a high level of literacy in their native or first language (L1).
For many late L2 learners, reading is the first encounter with the L2 in the context of classroom
instruction, although some adults may have initial exposure to a spoken L2 after being immersed
in an L2 environment by reasons of travel or immigration, and only later learn to read the L2.
The range of bilingual experience suggests that there may be different profiles of literacy
for adult readers of an L2. As we will see in this chapter, although there are many ways that
individuals come to read in an L2 that shape the nature of their literacy, research in the last two
decades has shown that there is a high level of permeability across the bilingual’s two languages
(e.g., Dijkstra, 2005; Kroll, Bobb, & Hoshino, 2014; Kroll, Dussias, Bogulski, & Valdes Kroff,
2012). Cross-language interactions can be seen at every level of language processing, from the
lexicon to the phonology and grammar, for the most proficient bilinguals and for L2 learners.
The discovery that has changed our understanding of bilingual reading is that both
languages are active even when bilinguals read in one language alone (e.g., see Kroll, Gullifer, &
Rossi, 2013, and Kroll & Dussias, 2013). The parallel activation of the two languages produces
competition that needs to be resolved. That competition takes different forms but has the
consequence of creating interactions in which the L1 affects the L2, the typical direction of
cross-language transfer from the native language to the weaker L2 (e.g., Kroll & Stewart, 1994;
MacWhinney, 2005), and the L2 affects the L1 (e.g., Ameel, Storms, Malt, & Sloman, 2005;
Dussias & Sagarra, 2007). It was once thought that these effects of the L2 on the L1 were
restricted to highly proficient bilinguals for whom the L2 is associated with a high level of skill
and automaticity (e.g., Van Hell & Dijkstra, 2002). But new studies suggest changes in the L1 at
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even very early stages of L2 learning that reflect the high degree of permeability across the two
languages (e.g., Chang, 2013; Mei et al., in press).
In this chapter we review the highlights of the recent research on bilingual reading,
focusing on bilinguals who are highly proficient in the two languages, but who may have
acquired the L2 beyond early childhood, and for readers who use two languages in which there
may be different scripts or only one language that is written. Critically, an implication of the
new research on bilingualism is that there is a high degree of plasticity, even for late acquirers of
an L2. As we will see in the review that follows, the current research no longer assumes that the
acquisition and use of an L2 past early childhood is limited (see also Birdsong & Vanhove, this
volume). Even late bilinguals can become highly proficient in the L2. In addition, the active use
of two or more languages appears to confer a set of cognitive advantages that extend beyond
language use to enable bilinguals to regulate the use of each language (e.g., Bialystok, Craik, &
Luk, 2012). These observations hold profound consequences for pedagogy and for social policy
that affects late L2 learners. Whereas, in the past, bilingualism may have been viewed as a
circumstance to be dealt with, it is now understood as goal to be achieved. Not only does
bilingualism present the opportunity to read in two languages, providing enhanced access to
information across languages and cultures, but it also changes the mind and brain in ways that
create greater cognitive flexibility and resilience.
Cross-Language Lexical Activation
Much of the research that demonstrates that both languages are active when reading in
one language alone has been conducted at the level of the lexicon, asking whether word
recognition is affected by knowledge of the language not in use. Evidence for parallel activation
(or language non-selective access) is most apparent for words that share overlap across the two
languages. As noted above, parallel activation of the unintended language does not occur solely
as the result of low L2 proficiency. Although lower proficiency L2 speakers appear to rely on co-
activation of the L1 to process the L2 under some circumstances (e.g., Kroll & Stewart, 1994;
Kroll, Van Hell, Tokowicz, & Green, 2010), and sometimes show less evidence of L2 activation
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during L1 processing, highly proficient L2 speakers experience co-activation of both languages,
such that each language becomes activated when processing the other. Cross-language activation
is not dependent on the type of task or the types of items used in experiments. Parallel activation
is observed in a variety of word recognition tasks, using behavioral (e.g., Dijkstra, Van Jaarsveld,
& Ten Brinke, 1998) and electrophysiological measurements (e.g., Midgley, Holcomb, &
Grainger, 2009), and even when words share no explicit overlap across the two languages (e.g.,
Morford, Wilkinson, Villwock, Piñar, & Kroll, 2011; Thierry & Wu, 2007).
A subject of great interest is how bilingual readers reduce the activation of the unintended
language. In speaking, inhibitory mechanisms suppress unintended alternatives (e.g., Abutalebi
& Green, 2007; Green, 1998; Misra, Guo, Bobb, & Kroll, 2012). A similar mechanism appears
to function in visual word recognition (e.g., Blumenfeld & Marian, 2011; Martín, Macizo, &
Bajo, 2010). Because reading involves the processing of a written input, one possibility is that
bilinguals recognize features of the input that cue the intended language. When a Chinese-
English bilingual reads English, it is obvious that the text is not Chinese. Counterintuitively,
many studies show that the presence of language-specific cues, such as different written script, is
not sufficient to reduce the activation of the unintended language (e.g., Thierry & Wu, 2007).
The primary evidence for parallel activation in reading comes from studies that examine
the processing of words that contain cross-language overlap such as cognates and homographs
(false friends). Cognates are words that contain form and meaning overlap across two languages.
For example the word bus refers to the same object, shares complete orthographic overlap, and is
pronounced similarly in English and Spanish. Interlingual homographs, or false friends, share
lexical form but differ in meaning across two languages. For example, the word red in Spanish
refers not to the color red in English but to a net; however, it is written and pronounced similarly
in English and Spanish. Bilinguals process words with cross-language overlap differently
compared to non-ambiguous words that are matched on their lexical properties and monolinguals
show no evidence of processing differences. Dijkstra et al. (1998) reported that Dutch-English
bilinguals activated Dutch during an English lexical decision task when required to respond ‘yes’
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if a presented letter string was a word in English. They showed that these bilinguals were faster
to respond to cognates than to matched controls.
In contrast to cognates, Dijkstra et al. (1998) showed that Dutch-English homographs
exhibited no processing differences unless the task was modified to more strongly involve Dutch
as the unintended language. When Dutch distractor words (that required a ‘no’ response) were
added to the set of nonword materials in English lexical decision to boost the relevance of Dutch,
homographs were slower than controls. When the task was changed into a ‘generalized’ lexical
decision task such that bilinguals responded ‘to a word in either English or Dutch’, they were
faster to process homographs than controls, illustrating sensitivity to form overlap but without
the need to resolve a semantic conflict that might otherwise lead to erroneous performance.
Cognate and homograph effects indicate that bilinguals are unable to function as
monolinguals in each language. However, the dependence of the homograph effect on the
context of the task indicates that not all words with cross language overlap index language co-
activation in the same way, and suggests that some homographs words in particular may be
sensitive to contextual features of the environment. However, the stability of the cognate effect
even when the unintended language is not present in the set of materials indicates that bilinguals
co-activate the unintended language. If bilinguals could selectively access the intended language,
then the presence of cross-language overlap should have no bearing on processing.
In some ways, parallel activation of the L1 during L2 reading is not surprising; a core
assertion in theories of L2 learning (e.g., Kroll & Stewart, 1994; MacWhinney, 2005) is that the
stronger language will influence the weaker language during learning through reliance on
transfer from or translation into the L1. However, parallel activation is not limited to low-
proficiency L2 users reading in their L2. Highly proficient L2 speakers (such as those in Dijkstra
et al., 1998) continue to activate the L1 during L2 reading. Furthermore, many studies now also
support the idea that L1 reading is influenced by co-activation of the L2 (e.g., Gullifer, Kroll, &
Dussias, 2013; Titone, Libben, Mercier, Whitford, & Pivneva, 2011; Van Assche, Drieghe,
Duyck, Welvaert, & Hartsuiker, 2011; Van Hell & Dijkstra, 2002). Parallel activation of the
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unintended language during L1 reading is evident for bilinguals who are highly proficient
speakers of both languages and can be considered to have higher baseline activation levels for
alternatives in both languages, though emerging electrophysiological and fMRI evidence
suggests that even early learners are sensitive to cross-language overlap when they read words in
their dominant L1 (e.g., Bice, Kroll, & Dussias, in preparation; Mei et al., in press).
While the evidence for parallel activation of the bilingual’s two languages is compelling,
there have also been criticisms of these studies. First, it is not clear from the study of cognate and
homograph processing alone that non-selective access extends to processing of all words in the
lexicon. Second, one can argue that the processing differences observed for words with cross-
language overlap are simply the result of increased frequency of word usage. For example, a
Spanish-English bilingual will experience the cognate word bus twice as often as her
monolingual counterpart, and this increased experience may lead to a processing advantage for
that word in the bilingual’s lexicon (e.g. see evidence on the weaker-links or frequency lag
hypothesis, Gollan, Montoya, Cera, & Sandoval, 2008; Gollan et al., 2011). While frequency
may play a role in changing lexical processing for bilingual readers, it does not rule out parallel
activation of languages. Cognate and homograph effects depend on the degree of orthographic
overlap (e.g., which can be calculated via the Van Orden or Levenshtein distance methods, Van
Orden, 1987) and phonological overlap (that can be elicited from participants making auditory
judgments on sound overlap) of a word between the two. Smaller cross-language effects are
observed for language-ambiguous words with a less orthographic or phonological overlap, and
this relationship is linear (e.g., Dijkstra, Grainger, & Van Heuven, 1999; Schwartz, Kroll, & Diaz,
2007; Van Assche et al., 2011). A purely frequency-dependent hypothesis would not predict
sensitivity to cross-language overlap within language-ambiguous words.
Further evidence in favor of the parallel activation hypothesis is the observation of cross-
language effects for stimuli that share no overt similarities (Morford et al., 2011; Thierry & Wu,
2007; Wu, Cristino, Leek, & Thierry, 2013). To illustrate, when proficient Chinese-English
bilinguals and monolingual speakers of each language make semantic relatedness judgments on
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English words, both groups of speakers show semantic priming via a reduction of the N400
response for related words. The N400 is a negative-deflecting event-related potential (ERP)
effect, peaking around 400 ms following stimulus onset. ERP effects are measures of the brain’s
electrophysiological response to cognitive events, such as the presentation and subsequent
processing of a word. The N400, in particular, is typically associated with ease of semantic
processing (Federmeier, & Kutas, 1999; Kutas & Hillyard, 1984; for a review see Kutas &
Federmeier, 2011; Swaab, Ledoux, Camblin, & Boudewyn, 2011). Critically, only bilinguals in
these studies showed an additional modulation of the N400 when the Chinese translation of the
English words shared characters and phonology, features that were not present in the experiment
(Thierry & Wu, 2007; Wu & Thierry, 2010).
Language Selection
How do bilinguals overcome co-activation to select the intended language? Research on
production suggests that inhibition of the more dominant language enables selection of the
weaker language. Inhibition is seen in tasks that require language switching. Bilinguals exhibit a
cost to switch from one language to another. The magnitude of the switch cost is related to the
dominance of the language being switched into. A switch into the weaker language following the
dominant language results in a smaller cost compared to a switch into the dominant language
following the weaker language. It becomes counter-intuitively harder to speak the dominant
language in a mixed-language situation. If both languages are of equal dominance, a switch cost
of equal magnitude is observed (see Bobb & Wodniecka, 2013). Asymmetric switch costs are
most easily explained by an inhibitory mechanism of language selection in which the dominant
language requires stronger inhibition to suppress it compared to a weaker language. When the
suppressed language later becomes the target language, the inhibition must be overcome,
resulting in a switch cost proportional to the amount of inhibition applied to that language (and
hence proportional to the dominance of the suppressed language).
A mechanism of selection is particularly important during language production because
there is often only one output channel: the mouth (unless the bilingual in question knows one
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spoken and one signed language). Because only one word can be spoken at any given moment,
only one candidate can become the target output. During language comprehension there is no
physical limit that necessitates language selection, and there may be no penalty to having
multiple co-activated words particularly if those words share meaning overlap. Yet recent studies
suggest a similar inhibitory mechanism during language comprehension, with some important
differences. Language switch costs are observed during visual word recognition (Thomas &
Allport, 2000; Von Studnitz & Green, 2002), indicative of an inhibitory mechanism. Yet the
comprehension-based switch costs tend to be symmetric, even when participants are more
dominant in one language. Other comprehension studies have found that switch costs may be
reduced altogether in certain situations. For example, Ibáñez, Macizo, and Bajo (2010) failed to
find switch costs during self-paced reading when participants were required to switch languages
following the end of a sentence. Further work from Martín et al. (2010) suggests that inhibition
of activated alternatives when bilinguals read words for meaning decays over the course of 500-
750 ms, a marked difference to language production where switch costs persist even when
bilinguals are given time on the order of seconds to prepare for a language switch (e.g., Misra et
al., 2012). In sum, it seems that an inhibitory mechanism is recruited during reading, but that
inhibition decays relatively quickly compared to inhibition recruited during language production.
Cues to Language Selection
Reading is the process of taking written input and discerning meaning. Because bilingual
readers are supplied with an input that is ultimately indicative of the intended language, it is
possible that bilinguals can recognize and use features of the input that may serve as pointers to
the intended language (i.e., a language cue) to selectively access the intended language. Overall
there has been little support for the notion that language cues in the input restrict activation to the
intended language, though only a few potential cues have been studied in the extant body of
literature. Parallel activation in early literature was commonly measured in isolated word
recognition tasks. However, outside the laboratory, words are rarely processed without
surrounding context.
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One language cue that has since been thoroughly investigated is the presence of a
sentence context in one of the two languages. However, the mere presence of a unilingual
sentence context is not sufficient to restrict co-activation to that language. When words with
cross-language overlap are embedded inside of a single-language sentence context, bilinguals
still show bi-directional (L1-L2 and L2-L1) sensitivity to the overlap with the unintended
language, particularly with cognate words (e.g., Duyck, Van Assche, Drieghe, & Hartsuiker,
2007; Gullifer et al., 2013; Schwartz & Kroll, 2006; Van Assche, Duyck, Hartsuiker, &
Diependaele, 2009; Van Hell & De Groot, 2008). Although the mere presence of a sentence
context cannot restrict parallel activation, if it is strongly biased towards a single interpretation
(i.e., the sentence is semantically constrained), effects indicative of cross-language activation are
reduced or eliminated. For example, when bilinguals read a sentence such as “The boy ate the
juicy red apple” in which the word apple (a cognate word between many languages) is highly
predictable given the surrounding context, cross-language activation is reduced indicating that
the semantics of a sentence can function as a cue to language (Libben & Titone, 2009; Van Hell
& De Groot, 2008; Titone et al., 2011, but see Van Assche et al., 2011). However, it should be
noted that initial lexical access becomes selective relatively late in the time-course of word-
recognition following a period at which both languages are initially activated. For example,
Libben and Titone (2009) showed that when French-English bilinguals read semantically
constrained sentences in English, cognates were facilitated and homographs were inhibited
relative to control words for measures of eye-movements that are thought to track initial lexical
access. These effects were eliminated in later measure of eye-movements that involve processes
of sentential integration. In contrast, when upcoming words were not predictable given the
context, cognate and homograph effects are present in both early and late measures of eye-
movements. The finding that the semantics of a sentence reduces lexical co-activation indicates
that it is possible for bilinguals to eventually select the appropriate language in comprehension
and that the semantics of a sentence can function as a cue. It also may be the case that readers
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may require multiple convergent cues (e.g., a unilingual sentence context and semantic
constraints) in order to achieve language-selective recognition.
Features of the environment in which a language is processed may also function as
language cues. Bilinguals co-activate both languages even when they are immersed in an
environment that requires the use of a single language alone. In the strongest case, parallel
activation of the L2 on the L1 is observable when participants are recruited and tested in a purely
monolingual setting (e.g., Van Hell & Dijkstra, 2002). However, when cross-language effects are
compared across different settings, there is demonstrable sensitivity to the global context in the
magnitude of the cross-language effects. With homographs as an index of co-activation, readers
have been shown to zoom-in to the intended language as they progress through an experiment
requiring the use of one language. For example, Elston-Güttler and colleagues have shown that
behavioral and electrophysiological homograph effects are reduced during the second half of
experiments relative to the first half. Furthermore, when participants watch a film in the
unintended language before beginning a task or if they hear background words in the unintended
language during the task, the adjustment to the intended language is slowed. Taken together
these results indicate that the global context of language usage can influence language non-
selectivity during reading (Elston-Güttler & Gunter, 2009; Elston-Güttler, Gunter, Kotz, 2005;
Paulmann, Elston-Güttler, Gunter, & Kotz, 2006). Global context seems to have a weaker effect
when cognates are used as the index of lexical co-activation may only be revealed using a highly
sensitive measure such as event-related potentials (ERPs), which provide information not only
about the timecourse of an effect, but also what underlying cognitive processes may be involved.
Gullifer et al. (2013) tested the global context effect on cross-language activation in a
behavioral task. They asked two groups of Spanish-English bilinguals to read sentences in
Spanish and English, and sentences contained cognates between the two languages or lexically
matched non-cognates. One group of participants read the sentences in blocks of each language
(i.e., a single-language context) and another group read the same sentences in mixed-language
blocks (i.e., a mixed-language context). If the global context influences co-activation of the
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unintended language, then the magnitude of the cognate effect should be greater in mixed-
language blocks relative to single language blocks. Yet, the magnitude of the cognate effect is
strikingly similar regardless of the global context, hinting that this may serve a limited role in
reducing co-activation when the target words strongly co-activate both languages. However,
ERP studies have found a reduction in the N400 cognate effect for isolated word recognition in
the non-immersed language, indicating that there is sensitivity to global context (Midgley,
Holcomb, & Grainger, 2011). Overall, global context that requires the use of one language can
reduce, but not eliminate, co-activation of the unintended language.
Cross-Language Processes within Sentence Context
A critical issue when considering the non-selectivity of a bilingual’s two languages is
what happens when reading is situated in context. As discussed previously, when a bilingual is
reading in one language alone, there is still the potential for both interference and support from
the non-target language. Bilingual readers are faced with a situation where the two languages
often compete for selection at the level of both the lexicon and grammar. The evidence suggests
that when the two languages converge, syntactic priming can be observed from one language to
the other (e.g., Hartsuiker, Pickering, & Veltkamp, 2004). When the two languages differ, they
may do so because one language has a unique syntactic structure, or because one language makes
different commitments in terms of parsing preferences (see Dussias, Marful, Bajo, Gerfen, 2010).
This has repercussions for how the mechanisms underlying sentence and discourse processing
unfold in real time and whether successful comprehension is ultimately attained (e.g., Kroll &
Dussias, 2013). For example, syntactic parsing preferences in the L1 have been shown to be
mediated by L2 exposure and proficiency (Dussias & Sagarra, 2007). The more L2 experience a
non-native speaker has (e.g., the longer s/he has been immersed in an L2 context), the more
likely it is that the L2 structure will interfere with processing in the native L1.
This permeability between the frequency and processing of syntactic structures in the L1
and L2 reveals a complicated relationship between a bilingual’s experience in both languages
and how the L1 and L2 typically interact during natural reading. However, the work previously
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discussed focused on the processing of syntactically ambiguous sentences that are not frequently
encountered in natural language use. In what way, then, might the co-activation of a bilingual’s
two languages be taken advantage of during normal comprehension? Recent research on code-
switching in written language contexts may begin to provide an answer to this question.
Reading Code-Switched Text
A code-switch occurs when a speaker switches from one language to another, sometimes
within the same phrase or sentence, without changing the intended meaning of the utterance (see
Example 1; from Altarriba, Kroll, Sholl, & Rayner, 1996).
(1) He wanted to place all of his dinero at the credit union.
(2) He wanted to place all of his money at the credit union.
In cases like (1) a switch occurs within a noun-phrase, but is comparable in meaning to
the translation equivalent in (2), where no switch occurs. Although these types of code-switches
are typically studied in bilingual speech production, investigating the processing of code-
switches within a written sentence context (i.e., intra-sentential code-switches) can help reveal
repercussions for language non-selectivity in the comprehension domain.
The frequency with which bilingual speakers code-switch in natural conversation is
thought to reflect the co-activation of a bilingual’s two languages. Altarriba et al. (1996) asked
how bilinguals process sentences like (1) and contrasted them to single-language sentences like
(2), and found that switching from one language to another produced a switch cost in longer
reading times on the switched word (e.g., dinero). With both languages active, it is easy to see
how interference or competition might occur. However, especially in dense code-switched
speech, bilinguals appear to select the word that is most readily available in either language.
Recent electrophysiological work sheds some light on this discrepancy. Moreno,
Federmeier, and Kutas (2002) conducted a study investigating the brain responses of bilingual
readers when they encounter code switches. In this task, bilingual participants read sentences that
contained language switches (as in 3), within-language lexical switches (4), or no switch (5).
(3) Each night the campers built a…fuego. (Code-switch)
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(4) Each night the campers built a… blaze. (Lexical switch)
(5) Each night the campers built a… fire. (Expected)
They also included a condition in which target words were embedded in sentences that
were highly semantically constrained (i.e., idioms). They hypothesized that switch costs in
reading may reflect difficulty in either accessing the meaning of the code-switched word in the
non-target language or in encountering an unexpected word. Either process should produce
different results in ERP responses to the code-switches. If code-switching costs are due to
difficulty in lexical access, then they should elicit an N400 response, related to ease of lexico-
semantic integration (see Swaab et al., 2011). If code-switched words are more difficult due to
their unexpectedness, then they should elicit a late positive ERP response, which is commonly
found for words that are unexpected (Coulson, King, & Kutas, 1998; McCallum, Farmer, &
Pocock, 1984), that require or trigger re-analysis (Friederici, 1995; Kolk & Chwilla, 2007), or
are simply more difficult to integrate in sentence contexts (Kaan, Harris, Gibson, & Holcomb,
2000). Results indicated that lexical switches consistently generated N400s, while code-switches
only did so for highly constrained, idiomatic sentences. Code-switches also produced late
positive responses, suggesting that costs are not only due to difficulty with lexico-semantic
integration, but also to the unexpectedness of a code-switched word (c.f. Proverbio, Leoni, &
Zani, 2004; see Van der Meij, Cuetos, Carreiras, & Barber, 2011).
If code-switches encountered in natural reading are interpreted as unexpected, and
therefore more difficult to process, in what way are code-switches in natural speech more
advantageous to the listener or conversational partner? Moreno et al. (2002) found that bilinguals
with higher L2 proficiency, tended to produce a late positivity that was earlier in onset than that
produced by those with low L2 proficiency. This earlier shift in the late positive component may
reflect earlier awareness of the code-switch for more proficient bilinguals. The pattern across
these recent studies indicates that code-switches may be costly in unexpected situations, but that
this cost can be modulated by co-activation of a bilingual’s L1 and L2. Language non-selectivity
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in bilingual reading can interfere with comprehension, but can also provide benefits if
similarities between the languages are fully exploited.
The Costs of Prediction in L2 Sentence Context
In the past, it was suggested that bilinguals reading in the L2 have constraints on their
cognitive resources (see Clahsen & Felser, 2006; McDonald, 2006), possibly as a repercussion of
lower proficiency and/or later age of acquisition. Within the scope of this difficulty, to what
extent does reading in the L2 draw on a bilingual reader’s cognitive and neural resources?
Furthermore, is there any evidence to suggest that bilingual readers, even those who acquired
their L2 later in life, are able to read in a native-like fashion? A recent debate in the reading
comprehension literature has focused on readers’ ability to engage in a task that is seen as highly
resource demanding: predicting the features of upcoming words. These features could be
orthographic (Laszlo & Federmeier, 2009), semantic (Federmeier, McLennan, De Ochoa, &
Kutas, 2002; Federmeier, Wlotko, De Ochoa-Dewald, & Kutas, 2007), thematic (Kamide,
Altmann, & Haywood, 2003), morphosyntactic (Otten & Van Berkum, 2009; Van Berkum,
Brown, Zwitserlood, Kooijman, & Hagoort, 2005), or pragmatic (Van Berkum, 2008); however,
of primary concern is how readers are able to generate these predictions and whether they are
similarly capable of adapting their expectations to more closely match their reading experience.
Prediction was thought to be too demanding for most readers to engage in, as the potential
benefits of generating a prediction for a specific word may not outweigh the costs of
encountering a different word entirely. However, in the last several years, it has been widely
shown that young adult readers not only do tend to engage in prediction in their native language
(see Federmeier, 2007; Van Berkum, 2008, 2012), but will also do so even if they encounter
situations in which predictions are less helpful (Federmeier et al., 2007).
In a recent study on prediction effects in L2 processing, Martin et al. (2013) asked
whether proficient bilinguals can generate predictions for the meaning of upcoming words in the
L2. Bilingual and monolingual participants read sentences that were highly constrained, but
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differed in the expectedness of the sentence final word. In addition, the indefinite article
preceding the final word either agreed with the expected word (see 6) or did not (see 7).
(6) I asked you a question because I need… an answer. (Expected)
(7) I asked you a question because I need… a response. (Unexpected)
The prediction effects in this study were therefore dependent upon readers’ sensitivity to
phonological agreement between the target noun and its preceding indefinite article. Their results
suggested that the bilingual readers were not able to predict in the L2, while the monolinguals
were. In the unexpected condition, monolingual participants produced a late frontal positivity, an
ERP response that has previously been shown in response to cases where predictions are
disconfirmed (Federmeier et al., 2007). However, bilinguals reading in their L2 did not produce
this response. The authors took this to suggest that the bilinguals in their study were not
predicting, and that being able to form predictions in the L2 may require early age of acquisition
and possibly a degree of proficiency on par with that of native speakers. Indeed, in a later study,
Foucart and colleagues (in press) found that earlier age of acquisition may play an important role
in determining whether bilinguals have the resources necessary to generate predictions in the L2.
There are two possible issues with respect to this interpretation. One is that this level of
proficiency may be more difficult to reach the later in life an individual starts to learn a second
language. Late L2 learners may have more difficulty generating predictions than monolinguals.
This could be due to an inability to engage in language processing in a native-like fashion (e.g.,
Clahsen & Felser, 2006) or to an inability to engage sufficient cognitive resources to process the
L2 in real time (e.g., McDonald, 2006). In addition, it is possible that the late frontal positivity
found in response to disconfirmed predictions is not solely a repercussion of predicting and
having said prediction disconfirmed. Instead, it may reflect difficulty with inhibiting a previously
formed prediction or mediating conflict between a prediction that has been generated and the
unexpected word. If this process does rely on inhibition skill, then there is reason to expect that
bilinguals may be quite successful at resolving this type of conflict, as bilinguals have often been
Adult literacy in two languages !
shown to outperform matched monolinguals on cognitive control tasks measuring inhibition skill
(Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004; Gold, Kim, Johnson, Kryscio, & Smith 2013).
Zirnstein, Van Hell, and Kroll (2014; in preparation) tested this by presenting bilingual
readers with L2 sentences and measured their ERP responses to target words while they read for
comprehension. The sentences included those like (8) that were highly semantically constraining
and included a target word that was highly expected or predictable, and sentences like (9) that
were also highly constraining, but had a target word that was plausible, but unexpected.
(8) They paid for their meals, but forgot to leave a…tip for the waitress.
(9) They paid for their meals, but forgot to leave a…ten for the waitress.
In addition to the reading task, participants completed a cognitive control measure (i.e.,
the AX-CPT; Cohen, Barch, Carter, & Servan-Schreiber, 1999) and measures of verbal
production fluency in both the L1 and L2 (e.g., Luo, Luk, & Bialystok, 2010). The results from
the reading task showed that bilinguals reading in the L2 did produce a late frontal positivity in
response in the unexpected condition, and that the magnitude of this effect was predicted by
performance on the cognitive control task. Readers with better performance in the control task
showed no costs in their ERPs during the unexpected condition. Only those with poorer
performance on the control task generated the positivity, suggesting that this ERP effect is
related to cognitive control ability and difficulty with inhibiting a previously formed prediction.
In addition, this effect of cognitive control interacted with verbal fluency. Bilingual readers with
lower control and lower verbal fluency in both the L1 and L2 did not generate a frontal positive
ERP response, possibly as a consequence of not having the resources necessary to generate a
prediction in the L2.
The findings from these ERP studies suggest that experience in the L2, and in mediating
conflict between languages, has a direct influence on what strategies bilingual readers can adopt
and how L2 reading unfolds over time. A recent issue in bilingual reading comprehension is to
what extent late L2 learners are constrained in their ability to extract information from the L2,
and whether these constraints apply to all late learners. The bilingual participants in both Martin
Adult literacy in two languages !
et al. (2010) and Zirnstein et al. (2014; in preparation) were relatively late acquirers of their L2
(i.e., age of acquisition was after the age of 5). However, a consistent result across both studies
was a lack of frontal positivity for some bilingual readers. Zirnstein and colleagues interpreted
this effect as indicating successful recovery when a prediction had been disconfirmed. Recent
work by Morgan-Short and colleagues (2012a; 2012b) also indicates that even late bilingual
readers can achieve and maintain native-like processing. The evidence on L2 prediction and
bilingual reading comprehension shows that native-like processing is attainable, and that
bilingual readers have the potential to overcome the demands of processing in an L2.
The Consequences of Bilingualism for Reading
The research we have reviewed on reading in and out of sentence context suggests a high
degree of interaction between the bilingual’s two languages. On one hand, there is cross-
language activation and competition that must be resolved for one language to be selected. On
the other, there is evidence that bilinguals are able to exploit that activation when they are
required to code-switch from one language to the other. The ability of bilinguals to control or
regulate the activation of the language not in use has been hypothesized to confer a set of
benefits to bilinguals more generally (e.g., Bialystok et al., 2012; Duncan & Phillips, this
volume). These benefits or cognitive advantages have been observed in tasks that tap into
executive function and that do not necessarily engage language explicitly, so that bilinguals are
often reported to outperform their monolingual counterparts when asked to ignore irrelevant
information, resolve conflict, and switch between conditions. Although some have argued that
the reported benefits are more likely to be due to experience in producing rather than
comprehending language (e.g., Emmorey, Luk, Pyers, & Bialystok, 2008), as we noted earlier in
this chapter, there is evidence for momentary inhibition of the nontarget language in reading text
as well as in preparing speech (e.g., Martín et al, 2010). What we do not yet understand is how
the moment-to-moment processes that engage the cognitive system as individuals read may
accumulate over the life experience of a bilingual to produce domain general changes to
Adult literacy in two languages !
cognition. Those changes may be important, not only for issues of cognitive control, but also for
how cognitive control processes come to shape reading.
One area of research on reading new words in a new language has examined the
consequences of bilingualism for the act of word learning. Bilinguals are better able to acquire
new vocabulary in a novel language than monolinguals (e.g., Bogulski & Kroll, in preparation;
Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009). The benefit for bilinguals in word learning may be a reflection
of enhanced executive function that affects learning more generally or specific to those learning
contexts in which bilinguals have particular experience. Bogulski and Kroll compared these two
alternatives by asking whether the bilingual advantage in new word learning would be found
only for bilinguals reading in their L1 and learning to link the new words (functionally an L3) to
the L1, or also for bilinguals reading in their L2 and linking the L3 to the L2. If the vocabulary
learning benefit is due to domain general cognitive consequences of bilingualism, then all types
of bilinguals should reveal the effect. Bogulski and Kroll found the advantage only for
bilinguals reading in their L1 and argued that it is the L1 with which they have had the most
inhibitory experience. It is the stronger of the two languages, typically the L1, that requires
regulation to resolve the sort of cross-language competition described earlier in our review. The
result that suggested this explanation was the observation that bilinguals learning in L1 were
slower to name the L1 translations of the new L3 words than monolinguals. Critically, the same
bilinguals were not slower than monolinguals in performing tasks outside of the learning context.
Bogulski and Kroll argued that desirable difficulties in learning may produce better memory
when the strategy at the time of learning enhances conceptual elaboration and meaningful
feedback (e.g., Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013; and see Bjork & Kroll, in press).
Our review has focused on reading in the ordinary sense, when readers process text for its
meaning with the goal of comprehension. Much of the research on L2 reading has been
addressed to the question of whether bilinguals, and particularly late bilinguals who acquired the
L2 after early childhood, are able to read fluently in the L2, appreciating the nuances of meaning,
the implications of L2-specific syntax, and generating predictions in the way that native speakers
Adult literacy in two languages !
do. But in addition to processing code-switched text, bilinguals also perform some other
extraordinary reading tasks, as when they translate from one language to the other. Monolinguals
can paraphrase text as they read, but a comparison of paraphrasing and translating for bilinguals
suggests that translating is the more natural of the two tasks (e.g., Christoffels & De Groot, 2004).
Most bilinguals are not trained as professional translators or simultaneous interpreters.
Although the work of professional interpreters is a truly impressive feat with evidence for
exceptional cognitive and memory abilities (e.g., Bajo, Padilla, & Padilla, 2000; Christoffels &
De Groot, 2005), even ordinary bilinguals are able to translate from one language to the other
with relative ease. While it seems clear that bilinguals do not typically read text with the
intention of translating it into the other language, a series of studies have asked how reading
changes when the goal of reading is pure comprehension and when the goal is to translate.
Macizo and Bajo (2006) examined reading performance when bilinguals were told to read
expecting to translate or to be able to repeat the text that they had read. They found evidence for
enhanced sensitivity to the other language and increased processing load when bilingual readers
anticipated producing the translation of the text they were reading. These findings suggest that
comprehension is goal directed, with different cognitive control processes engaged as a function
of the task.
Summary and Conclusions
The research we have reviewed in this chapter suggests that the bilingual’s two languages
are fundamentally open to interactions that influence reading in each of their languages. That
openness creates a level of competition that requires resolution but also enables bilinguals do to
more with language than their monolingual peers. What are the implications of these of these
findings about cross-language interaction during reading? The costs associated with the
requirement to regulate the language not in use appear to confer a set of positive consequences
for language processing and for cognition. That topic is itself a focus of ongoing research across
the lifespan to understand how the use of two or more languages changes cognition and the
neural networks that support it (e.g., Green & Abutalebi, 2013; Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). But
Adult literacy in two languages !
perhaps the most striking implication of the new research findings on bilingual reading is that the
model of the native language and monolingual reader is no longer taken to characterize
successful literacy. Reading in two languages is a natural process that comes to change both
languages, not only the L2. The skilled bilingual reader differs from a monolingual, even when
reading in the L1. We are just beginning to appreciate the scope of these differences but a full
account will eventually inform everything from the evaluation of reading skill to approaches to
reading instruction. The prevalence of bilingualism suggests that this new model of literacy that
accommodates the presence of two or more languages will eventually become the norm.
Adult literacy in two languages !
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Author Notes
The writing of this chapter was supported in part by NIH Grant HD053146, NSF Grants BCS-
0955090 and OISE-0968369, a Guggenheim Fellowship to J.F. Kroll, NSF Doctoral Dissertation
Grant BCS-1251896 to J. Gullifer and J.F. Kroll, and NSF Grant SMA-1409973 to M. Zirnstein
and J.F. Kroll. Correspondence concerning this chapter should be addressed to Judith F. Kroll,
Department of Psychology, 416 Moore Building, The Pennsylvania State University, University
Park, PA 16802, USA. Electronic mail may be sent to
... These include methodology-related factors, such as the nature of the task (e.g., making word judgments vs. reading for comprehension), nature of the cross-linguistic overlap (e.g., cognates, interlingual homographs, or cross-language orthographic neighbors), degree of contextual constraint (e.g., isolated words vs. sentences or paragraphs), and global language context (e.g., instructions and/or stimuli presented in the L1, L2, or both). These also include participant-related factors, such as age and manner of L1/L2 acquisition, L1/L2 dominance, L1/L2 proficiency, and domain-general executive control abilities (for reviews, see Van Assche et al., 2012;Kroll et al., 2016;Titone et al., 2016;Whitford et al., 2016;Lauro and Schwartz, 2017). ...
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In this article we discuss the role of desirable difficulties in vocabulary learning from two perspectives, one having to do with identifying conditions of learning that impose initial challenges to the learner but then benefit later retention and transfer, and the other having to do with the role of certain difficulties that are intrinsic to language processes, are engaged during word learning, and reflect how language is understood and produced. from each perspective we discuss evidence that supports the notion that difficulties in learning and imposed costs to language processing may produce benefits because they are likely to increase conceptual understanding. We then consider the consequences of these processes for actual second- language learning and suggest that some of the domain- general cognitive advantages that have been reported for proficient bilinguals may reflect difficulties imposed by the learning process, and by the requirement to negotiate cross- language competition, that are broadly desirable. as alice Healy and her collaborators were perhaps the first to demonstrate, research on desirable difficulties in vocabulary and language learning holds the promise of bringing together research traditions on memory and language that have much to offer each other.
Three eye-tracking experiments using the ‘visual-world’ paradigm are described that explore the basis by which thematic dependencies can be evaluated in advance of linguistic input that unambiguously signals those dependencies. Following Altmann and Kamide (1999), who found that selectional information conveyed by a verb can be used to anticipate an upcoming Theme, we attempt to draw here a more precise picture of the basis for such anticipatory processing. Our data from two studies in English and one in Japanese suggest that (a) verb-based information is not limited to anticipating the immediately following (grammatical) object, but can also anticipate later occurring objects (e.g., Goals), (b) in combination with information conveyed by the verb, a pre-verbal argument (Agent) can constrain the anticipation of a subsequent Theme, and (c) in a head-final construction such as that typically found in Japanese, both syntactic and semantic constraints extracted from pre-verbal arguments can enable the anticipation, in effect, of a further forthcoming argument in the absence of their head (the verb). We suggest that such processing is the hallmark of an incremental processor that is able to draw on different sources of information (some non-linguistic) at the earliest possible opportunity to establish the fullest possible interpretation of the input at each moment in time.
Meuter and Allport (1999) were among the first to implicate an inhibitory mechanism in bilingual language control. In their study, bilinguals took longer to name a number in the L1 directly following an L2 naming trial than to name a number in the L2 following an L1 naming trial, suggesting that bilinguals suppress the more dominant L1 during L2 production. Since then, asymmetric switch costs have not been replicated in all subsequent studies, and some have questioned whether switch costs necessarily reveal language inhibition. Based on methodological grounds and interpretability problems, we conclude that switch costs may not be the most reliable index of inhibition in bilingual language control. We review alternative proposals for the source of switch costs, and point to other indices of inhibition within the switching paradigm and from adapted paradigms.