SAGE Journals

When it’s harder to ignorar than to ignore: Evidence of greater attentional capture from a non-dominant language

Posted on 2020-05-13 - 12:18
Aims and Objectives:

Imagine you’re driving and you become so distracted by the radio that you miss your turn. Which is more likely to have caught your attention, a broadcast in your native tongue or one in your second language? The present study explores the effect of language proficiency on our ability to inhibit irrelevant phonological information.


Participants were asked to identify which of two drawings changed color while ignoring irrelevant words in either their native language, English, or a less proficient language, Spanish. The drawings appeared on screen for either 200 or 2000 ms prior to word-onset, which was followed 200 ms later by a color-change. On critical trials, the irrelevant word shared phonological features with the label of the non-target drawing. Trials were blocked by preview time and language.

Data and Analysis:

Reaction time data from 19 bilinguals were analyzed utilizing generalized linear mixed-effects models, with fixed effects of Competition (competitor vs. control), and Language (English vs. Spanish) and random effects for Subject and Item within each preview window.


No interference was observed when participants heard their native tongue in either preview condition. However, participants in the long-preview condition were significantly slower to respond when there was phonological competition in their less proficient language, despite the fact that the task required no language processing.


Past work has indicated that languages are processed more automatically and cause greater interference as proficiency increases. We propose that though higher-proficiency languages may receive greater activation overall, lower-proficiency languages may be more likely to exogenously capture attention due to both relatively greater salience, and relatively less control.


The present findings have implications for how we understand the dynamic relationship between language proficiency, activation, and inhibition, suggesting that the salience of the less familiar influences our ability to ignore irrelevant information.


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