The time course of conceptual processing in three bilingual populations

Brian McElree, Gisela Jia, Annie Litvak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A response signal, speed-accuracy tradeoff (SAT) variant of a same-different category task was used to examine how experience affects the speed and accuracy of retrieving conceptual information in first (L1) and second (L2) languages. Conceptual retrieval was evaluated in three bilingual groups: 10 balanced bilinguals with equal proficiency in Russian (L1) and English (L2); 9 Russian-dominant bilinguals who were less than fully proficient in English (L2); and 7 English-dominant bilinguals for whom English (L2) had become their primary language. Retrieval speed and accuracy was measured for L1 and L2 translation pairs and same- or different-category pairs within and across languages. For all bilinguals, translation pairs engendered higher accuracy and faster retrieval speeds than other conditions, and judgments of same-language category pairs were more accurate than different-language pairs. No differences in speed or accuracy were found for L1 and L2 same-language pairs for the balanced group, indicating that conceptual retrieval was equally proficient in L1 and L2. However, retrieval speed was slower and less accurate for same- and different-language pairs with items from the nondominant language for both unbalanced groups. Slower retrieval speeds are argued to result from a mediational process in which the dominant language provides access to conceptual information whenever mappings in the nondominant language cannot sustain direct retrieval of conceptual information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-254
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2000


  • Bilingualism
  • Language dominance
  • Lexical representations
  • Second language acquisition
  • Semantic retrieval
  • Speed-accuracy tradeoff

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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