Most of us have experienced that moment that halts a conversation: An elusive word, phrase or name hovers just beyond our memory's reach.
While many studies have shown that bilingual speakers experience more of these tip-of-the tongue (TOT) states than monolingual speakers, a study in the April issue of Neuropsychology (Vol. 19, No. 2), finds that when it comes to recalling proper names, bilingual speakers experience the same number of TOT states, and sometimes even fewer.
"Proper names are the one time that bilingual speakers don't need to learn two names for something," says lead researcher Tamar Gollan, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego. "So when referencing proper names, bilingual speakers face the same challenges as monolingual speakers."
To reach this finding, Gollan and her colleagues instructed 24 bilingual and 24 monolingual participants to record their TOTs in a diary, including information about the target word form, other words that came to mind and the familiarity of the word.
They found that, excluding proper names, bilingual speakers experienced nearly double the number of TOTs of monolinguals.
In a follow-up study, Gollan and her colleagues asked 28 bilingual and 28 monolingual speakers to complete a questionnaire requiring them to recall the names of celebrities and various people in their own lives, such as their sixth-grade teachers.
While bilingual speakers reported more instances in which they simply did not remember the person, the two groups reported a similar number of TOT moments.
Gollan speculates that bilingualism may provide protection against normal age-related changes in cognitive functioning.
"Tip-of-the-tongue states are the cost associated with bilingualism," Gollan says. "But benefits may emerge as groups age. Working twice as hard may do something good for the brain."
In the future, the researchers will expand the study to examine whether bilingualism protects against age-related increases in TOTs when retrieving proper names.