A new publication by Kalinka Timmer, Zofia Wodniecka and Albert Costa is now available: Rapid attentional adaptations due to language (monolingual vs bilingual) context Click here for more information!
Does our general attentional system adapt to the language context we are in? Bilinguals switch between contexts in which only one language is present or both languages are equiprobable. Previous research by Wu and Thierry (2013) suggested that the bilingual language context can modify the workings of inhibitory control mechanisms. Here we investigate whether this can be replicated and whether other attentional mechanisms (alerting and orienting) also adjust depending on whether we are in a bilingual or a monolingual situation. Bilinguals performed the Attentional Network Task (ANT) task, which allows us to measure three types of attentional processes: alerting, orienting and executive control. Crucially, while performing the ANT task, participants also saw words presented in only one language (e.g., Catalan; monolingual context) or in two languages (Catalan and Spanish; bilingual context); this allowed us to assess whether the three attentional processes would be modified by language context. Compared to the monolingual context, in the bilingual context the target-P3 amplitude was enhanced for the alerting and executive control networks but not for the orienting network. This suggests that bilinguals’ state of alertness was enhanced when surrounded by words from two languages. Exploratory analyses reveal that within the bilingual context, language switches have an alerting effect, as indexed by a greater target-N1, thus impacting upcoming visual processing of the flanker. Response hand activation is speeded up for congruent trials in a similar way that arbitrary alerting cues speed them up. This speed-up was reflected in a greater LRP in the bilingual context, but it was not reflected in behavioral measures (RTs or ACC). Thus, a bilingual context can enhance attentional capacity towards non-linguistic information. It also reveals how flexible the cognitive system is.