Home > Language > Bilinguals’ twisted tongues: the Tip-Of-the-Tongue phenomenon in other language systems and bilingualism

Bilinguals’ twisted tongues: the Tip-Of-the-Tongue phenomenon in other language systems and bilingualism

My friend is not a native English speaker. I still remember his most funny yet embarrassing moment when we were both freshmen. He was introducing himself in front of the whole dorm, and I know he wanted to say he’s hard-working or diligent, because I almost heard him uttering “di”. But he seemed to be suddenly forgetting the word. Instead, after a long pause, he said something like “I’m a detergent person”. Everyone looked confused, and I couldn’t help laughing. I totally feel him. As a bilingual, I’m just too familiar with this tip-of-the-tongue state. From time to time, I lose the English word I was trying to say (especially during a zoom meeting, ah, guess how embarrassing it could be), and I would burst into a silent cry, not again! I know I know it; I know the corresponding word in my first language, and I can almost see it in the printed form in my mind. Yet I just can’t pull it out from my memory. 

A comic illustrating the tip of the tongue effect…it’s just so annoying!

When you are reading this blog, does it come to your mind that you have experienced this Tip-Of-the-Tongue (TOT) effect in your own life? You are nodding and smiling, because even if English is your native language, you know that annoying feeling as well as I do. In cognitive psychology, the TOT phenomenon refers to when people fail to retrieve a target word, yet the feeling of retrieval is imminent. In other words, you are 100% sure you know it somewhere in your mind, and you can even give the first few syllabus or letters, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t remember it. You might even feel painful and anxious, because you are just so eager to know what it is exactly. Why are we interested in this topic? Well, the TOT states may not influence a native speaker’s life too much, but that unsatisfying feeling is still bothersome; For bilinguals and second-language learners, on the other hand, TOTs not only bring embarrassment and hurt confidence, it also happens more often. So it would be useful to ask why we experience it at all, how it would affect us if we are going to learn a second language, and what it reveals about our fundamental cognitive system.  

TOTs occur differently in other language systems

Before answering the questions above, let’s first consider the universality of TOT states. We already know the TOT state is common in English speakers, but does it ever occur to you that this phenomenon might be happening across cultures? The answer is yes. Search for “Tip of the Tongue” in any academic database, and you would be able to find related researches in as many languages as Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, etc. Psychologist Schwartz supported the universality of TOTs in his 1999 study, during which he interviewed speakers of 51 languages and found that all of them incorporate an equivalent saying to the English expression “To have a word on the tip of the tongue”. Brennen and colleagues (2007) further suggested that since TOTs are associated with the blocking of language retrieval, which is a basic and universal cognitive process everyone undergoes, the TOT state is very likely to be universal. Contrary to most TOT studies that use highly educated Western participants, Brennen and colleagues focused on TOTs found in an unwritten Guatemalan language. They randomly interviewed local people in and around the city of Cobán, in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, and asked them to recall names of celebrities. Even though most participants never heard of the expression “tip of the tongue” in their own language, they reported a feeling of frustration when they were unable to recollect the correct name, and reported experiencing what are similar to the characteristics of being in the TOT state. 

Though the TOT state is universal in various cultures and language systems, there are subtle differences in how people experience it. In most Western studies, people experiencing TOTs are able to report answers that resemble the target word in initial segments, stress pattern and even number of syllables. For people in the city of Cobán, providing initials increased their possibility of retrieving the target, but partial knowledge was absent in all answers. In other words, these people were unable to indicate the length, letters or other syntactic information of names they were blocking on. In another study that examines TOTs in Chinese speakers, the substituted words are more semantically-related to the targets but not phonologically related. This difference in partial knowledge might be due to differences in language processing steps. In particular, while Latin languages can be comprehended simply upon hearing the sound, Chinese words have to be written down or heard in context to be understood. 

Bilinguals’ twisted tongues

Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?

When bilinguals experience the TOT state, both language systems are activated

Hey wait, if TOTs happen in most languages in the world, will I experience it more often if I speak more than one language? Most cognitive psychologists would answer yes, as there have been enough cognitive experiments showing that bilinguals have more TOT incidents than monolinguals, as discussed in this blog. However, a more recent study by Kreiner and Degani (2015) introduced us to something new. First, long-term experience affects TOT rates in bilinguals. In this study, Kreiner and Degani recruited two groups of Russian-Hebrew speakers who have immigrated to Israel before and after age 5, and what they found was that early bilinguals exhibit significantly less TOTs than late bilinguals, and perform almost as well as monolinguals. What this result suggests is that if you have been using English and Spanish interchangeably since an early age, chances are you might experience as few TOTs as those who only speak English. Another new insight this study reveals is that short-term experience affects the TOT rate as well. In their study, Russian-Hebrew speakers and native Hebrew speakers were asked to perform on a picture-naming task before and after viewing a Russian movie. Surprisingly, both bilinguals and monolinguals exhibited increased TOT rates, indicating that even if you only speak one language, you can be subject to mistakes during language retrieval process because of this short language priming.  


In a discussion of why bilinguals have more twisted tongues than monolinguals, Kreiner and Degani talked about the dual-language activation account, which suggests that when bilinguals try to retrieve the desired word under the TOT condition, they activate both language systems and have to inhibit one in order to get to the correct answer. This idea links back to Balota and colleagues’ models that explain the Stroop task and the DRM paradigm, where an attentional control system takes in task demands and directs mental resources to activate and inhibit pathways, in order to produce the right response. If we think of the TOT state as a cognitive task that requires people to report the target word, monolinguals would have only one activation pathway (because they only have one language system) that allows them to go straight into the right system and search for the word. Bilinguals, on the contrary, would have two language systems and have to inhibit one. This inhibition process is effortful because it requires bilinguals to recognize the current language context and consciously compare this context with both language systems, and finally decide which one to use. The limited capacity of attention may subject bilinguals to a failure of rejecting the unrelated language system, and eventually lead to errors. 

Now consider this: a Spanish-English speaker is undergoing the TOT state and is eager to recall the word ROSE in English. He knows it starts with a R, and he has this concept in mind: a fragrant flower, usually in red and pink colors, stems often have thorns. However, as a bilingual he has two separate semantic representations of this concept: rosa in Spanish and rose in English. It is critical for him, then, to discriminate between the two and make the right choice. Another example: a French-English bilingual is trying to recall the word CORNER in English, and she immediately thinks of the french word coin, which means corner. However, coin in English means money and automatically activates her mental access to the English word MONEY instead of CORNER. Needless to say, she has to inhibit this unrelated activation to prevent making errors. This video explains in more depth why coin primes for money: in short, written words that are morphologically identical can bear different meanings in different language systems, and as long as they are semantically related, word from one language system would prime for the other. Now that you’ve finished reading the examples above, hopefully it makes more sense now why bilinguals experience TOTs that often…

What TOT phenomenon reveals about our language and cognitive system.

The more likely people experience TOTs, the less likely they would perform well on a second language

One most significant thing TOTs tell us is that during language production, semantic and phonological processes are separated. Semantic process is when we access the meaning of a sentence, whereas phonological process is when we are able to say a sentence out loud, word-by-word and without error. So in a typical TOT state, we are able to recall the letter the word begins with (syntactic representations of a word) and what it means (the semantic representation), but not its pronunciation (phonological form of the word). Moreover, the frequency at which people experience the TOT state in their first language predicts their ability to learn a second language. Borodkin and Faust argued in their 2013 study that the more likely people experience TOT, the less effective they would perform on a second language. In particular, they would make grammar errors and have more trouble producing continuous sentences. If you experience TOTs way too often in your first language, be aware that you might not perform too well on a second language, because the ability to retrieve phonological forms of words are correlated across languages. There are ways to improve though. In Dr. Hamrick’s talk, he suggests that people’s language ability is associated with memory. When people improve their declarative memory, i.e., the ability to memorize episodic events and semantic knowledges, their word-learning ability improves as well. So if you want to succeed in mastering a second language, it is a good idea to start paying attention to the TOT states and utilizing effective study strategies to enhance your memory.






Borodkin, K., & Faust, M. (2013). Tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) states and cross-linguitic transfer. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(4), 914–923. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1017/S136672891300031X

Brennen, T., Vikan, A., & Dybdahl, R. (2007). Are tip-of-the-tongue states universal? Evidence from the speakers of an unwritten language. Memory, 15(2), 167–176. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/09658210601164743

Kreiner, H., & Degani, T. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue in a second language: The effects of brief first-language exposure and long-term use. Cognition, 137, 106–114. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.011

Levelt, W. J. M., Roelofs, A., & Meyer, A. S. (1999). A theory of lexical access in speech production. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(1), 1–38. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1017/S0140525X99001776

Ruiying, Z., Hao, L., Mingkun, O., & Qingfang, Z. (2019). Aging of the tip of the tongue in daily life: A diary study. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 51(5), 598–611.

Schwartz, B. L. 1999Sparkling at the end of the tongue: The aetiology of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenologyPsychonomic Bulletin and Review, 6: 379393.

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