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Simultaneous interpretation as a cooperative language context

Laura Babcock (University of Padova) & Antonino Vallesi (University of Padova)


Simultaneous interpretation; Inhibitory control; Language switching; Multilingualism; n-2 repetition cost

Simultaneous interpretation is an impressive cognitive feat which requires an individual to comprehend a stream of auditory material in one language and with a few seconds delay produce the same content in another language. This task necessitates the simultaneous use of two languages and therefore begs the question: how is language management accomplished during interpretation? One possibility is that interpretation represents a cooperative language context, similar to dense-code switching. In such a context both languages are maintained active and inhibitory control is reduced.

To examine whether inhibitory control is reduced after experience with interpretation, four groups of students with varying experience were assessed on a three language switching paradigm. The four student groups represented a full crossing of two experience variables: training in interpretation and recent practice with interpretation. The three language switching paradigm provided an empirical measure of the inhibition applied to abandoned languages. Trials which required a return to the language used two trials previously (e.g., English – Italian – English) were compared to trials which did not require a language repetition (e.g., French – Italian – English). The difference between these trials types, termed the n-2 repetition cost, provides an empirical signature of inhibitory control processes [1,2].

The four groups of students showed different patterns of n-2 repetition costs across the three languages (L1, L2, L3). These different patterns, however, did not appear to be connected to either training in interpretation or recent practice with interpretation. Instead, the differences may be due to other language characteristics. In particular, the n-2 repetition cost in the L2 correlated with self-rated speaking and understanding in the L2 (r = ‑.237, p = .053 and r = -.316, p = .009, respectively), suggesting that language proficiency may affect the use of inhibitory control in language management. The differences seen in the L1 n-2 repetition cost, on the other hand, may be due to the differing predominant bilingual interactional contexts of the groups. These results speak to the role that proficiency and interactional context have on language management and in turn on cognitive control abilities domain-generally. Further, these data promote the use of n-2 repetition costs as a pure measure of inhibition in switching tasks.



[1] Kiesel, A. et al. Control and interference in task switching–a review. Psychoogical Bulletin, 136:849–874. 2010.

[2] Koch, I., Gade, M., Schuch, S. & Philipp, A. M. The role of inhibition in task switching: a review. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 17:1–14. 2010.