Bilingual language switching in the laboratory versus in the wild: The spatiotemporal dynamics of adaptive language control

Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For a bilingual human, every utterance requires a choice about which language to use. This choice is commonly regarded as part of general executive control, engaging prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices similarly to many types of effortful task switching. However, although language control within artificial switching paradigms has been heavily studied, the neurobiology of natural switching within socially cued situations has not been characterized. Additionally, although theoretical models address how language control mechanisms adapt to the distinct demands of different interactional contexts, these predictions have not been empirically tested. We used MEG (RRID: NIFINV:nlx_inv_090918) to investigate language switching in multiple contexts ranging from completely artificial to the comprehension of a fully natural bilingual conversation recorded “in the wild.” Our results showed less anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex involvement for more natural switching. In production, voluntary switching did not engage the prefrontal cortex or elicit behavioral switch costs. In comprehension, while laboratory switches recruited executive control areas, fully natural switching within a conversation only engaged auditory cortices. Multivariate pattern analyses revealed that, in production, interlocutor identity was represented in a sustained fashion throughout the different stages of language planning until speech onset. In comprehension, however, a biphasic pattern was observed: interlocutor identity was first represented at the presentation of the interlocutor and then again at the presentation of the auditory word. In all, our findings underscore the importance of ecologically valid experimental paradigms and offer the first neurophysiological characterization of language control in a range of situations simulating real life to various degrees.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9022-9036
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number37
StatePublished - 2017


  • Adaptive cognitive control
  • Bilingualism
  • Language control
  • Language switching
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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