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The role of inhibitory control in cross-language priming

Anna Wolleb (The Arctic University of Norway) & Marit Westergaard (The Arctic University of Norway)


Inhibitory control; Cross-language priming; English; Norwegian; Bilingual children; Dative alternation

The present paper investigates the relationship between cross-language structural priming and inhibitory control in bilingual children. Previous research has employed structural priming to demonstrate that abstract syntactic representations can be shared between two languages, provided that they are sufficiently similar (see Loebell & Bock 2003; Hartsuiker, Pickering & Veltkamp 2004). The dative constructions in English and Norwegian meet this criterion, as shown in (1) and (2)

(1)                  The dog shows the queen   the book

Hunden viser   dronningen boka

(2)                   The dog shows the book to the queen

Hunden viser   boka         til dronningen

The presence of structural priming in bilingual settings indicates that the shared abstract syntactic representations stay active for a certain amount of time after having being experienced in one language, effectively influencing subsequent production and comprehension in the other.

Bilingual individuals need a mechanism to control attention to the language they are using while avoiding interference from the other one. This mechanism is commonly referred to as inhibitory control, and it is thought to be involved in both linguistic and other cognitive processes. A yet unexplored issue is how inhibitory control works on the shared representations during structural priming and specifically, whether it somehow weakens their active state.

In this paper, I tested Norwegian-English bilingual children on dative alternation in within-language and between-language contexts and compared the strength of the effect. In addition, the same speakers were given a classical executive function task, the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), in order to establish whether there was a correlation between performance on the executive function and priming tasks. I predicted that those children who score better at the DCCS, i.e. those with a higher inhibitory control, should also display a weaker priming effect. This hypothesis makes the assumption that the kind of inhibition associated with cognitive tasks is the same as that involved in the linguistic processes underlying the access to the shared representations of a bilingual grammar.

Results showed that within-language priming is significantly stronger than between-language priming, suggesting that inhibition is indeed at work for the duration of the task. However, there was no correlation between priming and the DCCS score. I therefore suggest that the kind of inhibition involved in priming and in cognitive tasks are not identical. Specifically, I propose that there might exist a ‘strictly linguistic’ inhibitory control that is not necessarily related to broader cognitive abilities.



[1] Hartsuiker, R., J, Pickering, M. J., Veltkamp, E. Is syntax separate or shared between languages? Cross-linguistic syntactic priming in Spanish-English bilinguals. Psychological Science, 6(15):409-414, 2004.

[2] Loebell, H. & Bock, K. Structural priming across languages. Linguistics, 41(5):791-824, 2003.

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