Home > Memory > It’s on the Ttt….Tip de mi Lengua: Differences in the Tip of the Tongue States for Bilingual and Monolinguals

It’s on the Ttt….Tip de mi Lengua: Differences in the Tip of the Tongue States for Bilingual and Monolinguals

Picture this: you run into someone you met last week. You remember you had a great conversation with them and got along well. But, there’s one problem. You can’t, for the life of you, remember their name.  You know it started with an “A” and was a relatively short name, but you can’t quite say the name out loud as you greet them. It’s RIGHT there though, on the tip of your tongue. Luckily, another mutual friend comes up to both of you and says, “Oh, how do you know Abigail?” Ah, yes, Abigail Rhodes. You remember now.

We all know that feeling that accompanies not being able to articulate something we are confident we know or should know. And, there’s a name for that feeling: it’s called the tip of the tongue phenomenon (TOT).  The TOT occurrence is a cognitive bias that is named after the colloquial phrase “it’s on the tip of my tongue” and helps to provide insights into why, even if we know something, we are sometimes unable to verbalize our answer.

Now, here’s some food for thought for you: if someone who only speaks one language sometimes struggles to verbalize thoughts or words, imagine how hard it must be for someone who is bilingual and is responsible for double the amount of vocabulary! But, we’ll get into that a little later. First, it is important to understand what the TOT state actually is.

The TOT state is a temporary state that explains that people are sometimes unable to access information that is stored in memory. In order to understand why people are sometimes incapable of saying or remembering something they’ve previously learned, it is key to understand the concepts of availability and accessibility, which were first proposed by Tuvling and Pearlstone (1966).

Memory as an iceberg

Thinking of your memory as an iceberg is a useful metaphor to understand the concepts of availability and accessibility. The entire iceberg, including what is above and below the water, is what is available in your memory. However, only the information right above the surface is what is accessible and able to be produced. Luckily, it’s not like you either remember and can produce everything or nothing; some words or information are more accessible than others. A few inches under the surface of the iceberg is where the TOT state exists – you can’t quite produce the information but it’s RIGHT there. But, there’s more beyond that TOT state. As you keep traveling down to the bottom of the iceberg, there is all that other information that is stored in your memory, which is available but not accessible. For bilingual individuals, they essentially have two times the amount of information under the surface of the water to sort through in order to produce an answer.

In the same year as Tulving and Pearlstone (1966) looked at availability and accessibility, Brown and McNeill (1966) started, for the first time, to look at the TOT state experimentally.  The two researchers induced TOT states by reading participants the definitions of words that were not commonly used and asked them to later recall those words, called “target words.” The results of the study illustrated that while in the TOT state, participants could remember features of words, such as certain letters (so, think back to our scenario where you could remember the name of Abigail started with the letter “A,” but you could not remember her whole name), but could not remember the full target word. The experiments provided useful evidence for the existence of TOT states, but the question still remains, why and how do TOT states occur?

So, it is clear that TOT states happen, but are some individuals more likely to experience TOT states than others? We know that older adults do, but also research has revealed that there is a difference in the amount of TOT states produced by monolingual individuals compared to bilingual ones.

In Gollan, Montoya, and Bonnai’s (2005) research on tip of the tongue differences between monolinguals and bilinguals, the researchers asked participants to answer a series of questions about the names of famous people (e.g. “who was the female star in Anaconda and Selena”), the names of people known in school (e.g. “who was your eighth-grade science teacher?”), and the names of objects (e.g. shown a funnel and had to say “funnel”). The experiments revealed that Spanish-English bilinguals and monolinguals both produced the same number of TOTs for proper names, but bilinguals had significantly more TOT states for non-proper names. So, both a bilingual and monolingual person would have the same level difficulty producing the name “Abigail,” but bilingual individuals would struggle more to produce words such as “funnel” when shown the image of the funnel. Similar findings were also revealed when looking at TOT states in Hebrew-English bilinguals, indicating that these findings are somewhat universal (Gollan & Silverberg, 2001).

Meme about resolving the TOT state

So, now that you know about the tip of the tongue state, what can you do about it (other than not aging and not being bilingual, that is)? The next time you’re frustrated when something is right there on the tip of your tongue, don’t be discouraged. Instead, think of being in the state as a challenge. Picture the iceberg in your head and look how close you are to being above the water. But, if you decide you need a little help figuring out how to transcend the TOT state, it turns out that gesturing can be used as an effective technique.



Brown, R., & McNeill, D. (1966). The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5(4), 325-337.

Gollan, T. H., Montoya, R. I., & Bonanni, M. P. (2005). Proper names get stuck on bilingual and monolingual speakers’ tip of the tongue equally often. Neuropsychology, 19(3), 278-287.

Gollan, T., & Silverberg, N. (2001). Tip-of-the-tongue states in Hebrew-English bilinguals, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4(1), 63-83.

Tulving, E., & Pearlstone, Z. (1966). Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 381-391.

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