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

December 8th, 2020 No comments

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.  

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