Assessing the scope of expertise-driven advantages in bilinguals: A comparison of interpreters and translators

Project: Research project

Project Details


Accruing research in recent years has prompted the “bilingual advantage hypothesis”, positing that the need for language control during bilingual processing enhances executive functioning. This advantage is believed to transfer to non-linguistic activities, creating neurocognitive benefits across the lifespan (Bialystok, 2017). The cognitive functions under discussion include the ability to inhibit irrelevant information, flexibility in updating mental schemas, and efficiency in switching between tasks. However, inconsistent results from various approaches have questioned the existence of this phenomenon (Paap et al., 2018). Such mixed findings may reflect the wide-ranging bilingual experiences of the participants and the diverse contexts under which they perform language tasks. Against this background, a promising approach lies in comparing specific bilingual populations differing in the cognitive demands they face during daily language processing (Bialystok, 2017). In particular, simultaneous interpreting is performed under extreme time pressure, which exerts high demands on several executive and linguistic functions. Abundant research suggests that interpreters outperform non-interpreter bilinguals in tasks measuring executive functioning. This has motivated the “interpreter advantage hypothesis” (García, 2014), which involves three central questions: 1) do the stringent demands faced by interpreters during bilingual processing lead to significant cognitive enhancements?; 2) if yes, to what extent is such an advantage specific to simultaneous interpreting or general to other forms of expertise in inter-lingual reformulation (e.g., written translation)?; and 3) when does the advantage, if it exists, emerge during an interpreter’s training or experience? This project aims to answer these questions through a longitudinal study where student interpreters are compared with student translators and bilingual students without training in interpreting and translation. Performance data will be collected at three time points over a two-year training program. Professional interpreters and professional translators will also be tested as benchmarks against which to assess the students’ performance. Validated tests will be used to measure participants’ executive functioning, verbal working memory, semantic processing, and a working memory component that integrates information from different sources. A dual-task methodology will be adopted to test how much participants rely on different working memory components when processing verbal information. This study differs from past studies in that the participants are more closely compared regarding the specific context where their two languages are used and in its choice of non-verbal memory components as potential areas of interest. More generally, our unique approach to sampling and testing can shed novel light on the adaptive capacity of bilingual cognitive systems.
Effective start/end date1/08/1931/07/23


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