Foreign language knowledge can influence native language performance in exclusively native contexts


In three experiments, we studied the influence of foreign language knowledge on native language performance in an exclusively native language context. Trilinguals with Dutch as their native and dominant language (L1), English as their second language (L2), and French as their third language (L3) performed a word association task (Experiment 1) or a lexical decision task (Experiments 2 and 3) in L1. The L1 stimulus words were cognates with their translations in English, cognates with their translations in French, or were noncognates. In Experiments 1 and 2 with trilinguals who were highly proficient in English and relatively low in proficiency in French, we observed shorter word association and lexical decision times to the L1 words that were cognates with English than to the noncognates. In these relatively low-proficiency French speakers, response times (RTs) for the L1 words that were cognates with French did not differ from those for the noncognates. In Experiment 3, we tested Dutch-English- French trilinguals with a higher level of fluency in French (i.e., equally fluent in English and in French). We now observed faster responses on the L1 words that were cognates with French than on the noncognates. Lexical decision times to the cognates with English were also shorter than those to the noncognates. The results indicate that words presented in the dominant language, to naive participants, activate information in the nontarget, and weaker, language in parallel, implying that the multilinguals’ processing system is profoundly nonselective with respect to language. A minimal level of nontarget language fluency seems to be required, however, before any weaker language effects become noticeable in L1 processing.


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Correspondence to Janet G. van Hell.

Additional information

J.G. van H. was partly supported by Grant 575-56-073 from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Experiments 1 and 2 were conducted while the first author was affiliated with the Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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van Hell, J.G., Dijkstra, T. Foreign language knowledge can influence native language performance in exclusively native contexts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9, 780–789 (2002).

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  • Lexical Decision
  • Proficiency Test
  • Lexical Decision Task
  • Dominant Language
  • Lexical Decision Time