On the tip of my tongue…

We’ve all had that experience where we know we know a word, but we just can’t recall it.

An American study set out to reproduce this phenomenon to see if there was any difference between monolingual and bilingual speakers’ chances of having a ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ moment.

It has already been documented that people who only speak one language have fewer instances of words on the tips of their tongues, but researchers wanted to know if it was because people are sounding out words in their heads (and bilinguals have around twice as many words in their heads as monolinguals).

To study this, the researchers asked participants to name dozens of different objects (often with rarely-used names, like metronome and gyroscope), and counted the number of tip-of-the-tongue experiences (but only for those instances where the participant actually knew the word).  They found that monolingual participants had fewer occurrences, but that English-Spanish speakers had around the same number of tip-of-the-tongue moments as English-ASL (American Sign Language) speakers.

This led the researchers to believe that we’re not sounding things out in our heads at all (as ASL does not have sounds), but looking through a catalogue of rarely-used words.

Full article: New Scientist.