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Bilingualism: Stephen Colbert's 'truthiness' inspires a language

July 13, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen Colbert, of "The Colbert Report," is known for coining words. Researchers studying bilingualism came up with a new language, which they dubbed Colbertian, for their tests.
Stephen Colbert, of "The Colbert Report," is known for coining… (Joel Jeffries / Comedy Central )

First, Stephen Colbert had a beetle named after him. Now he’s got a whole language. Scientists at Northwestern University, inspired by the faux pundit’s ability to neologize, created a set of nouns for “Colbertian,” which they could use to test the effects of bilingualism.

The study, released online by the journal Cognitive Science, found that bilingual speakers experienced less cognitive "interference" from their native language than monolinguals did when listening to speech in the newly acquired Colbertian. The results show that bilinguals may have a leg up on monolinguals when they’re picking up a new language.

Bilingualism has been tied to better cognitive performance on a number of levels, from delaying the onset of dementia to improving multi-tasking. As I’ve written before, it probably has to do with what’s known as executive control function (mainly located in the prefrontal cortex), which allows the brain to focus attention, ignore distractions and flip between multiple pieces of information while problem solving.

These benefits likely arise from the fact that, when speaking, bilingual speakers are constantly dealing with "interference" from the language they aren’t currently using. Imagine if you’re speaking Spanish and trying to say "manzana" and the word "apple" keeps popping up in the back of your head, even though it’s the wrong language. Being bilingual requires learning to effectively manage that interference.

But do the benefits of speaking multiple languages make learning a new language any easier? To answer this question, the researchers first trained study participants to learn Colbertian nouns, such as “shundoe” for acorn and “lateep” for hammer. Because the speakers were either English monolinguals or English-Spanish bilingual speakers, the Colbertian words were developed so that they had no similarities with the Spanish or English words.

Then the researchers had the study participants listen to Colbertian words and pick the matching image out of the choices presented. They tracked participants’ eye movements and mouse movements, to see if they veered over to the wrong choice because of interference from their native language.

For example, if the participants were presented with the word "shundoe" and asked to choose between a picture of a shovel and an acorn, the shovel (which sounds similar to "shundoe") might distract a speaker before they chose the acorn as the correct answer.

The study showed that bilinguals were much better at suppressing the native-language alternative while picking the correct Colbertian translation than the monolinguals were, neutralizing the competing language in half the time (700 milliseconds) than the monolinguals could (up to 1,400 ms).

It seems that learning a second language very well makes it easier to pick up others. Whether this rigorous scientific inquiry is up to the standards of "truthiness" is a question best left to Colbert himself.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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