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Do we control language or does language control us?

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In this talk, I will show how bilingual adults spontaneously access native translations of second language words unconsciously and unknowingly stop accessing these representations when second language words are unpleasant. Even more surprising, bilinguals unconsciously access the sound of words in their native language while speaking in their second. More surprising still, cross-language effects extend to the domain of syntax: Welsh-English bilinguals spontaneously transfer to English a morpho-phonological transformation rule of Welsh that is entirely alien to their native language! And perhaps worryingly, bilinguals engaging in a gambling task for money take more risk when receiving verbal feedback in their native as compared to their second language. Taken together these findings reveal unsuspected levels of automaticity and cognitive diversity linked to language variations within and between individuals. This realization calls for a reconsideration of the way in which we conceptualise free will and operations classically regarded as volitional.

Short biography

Guillaume Thierry

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

Bangor University, Wales

Using experimental psychology and electroencephalography, Guillaume Thierry studies language comprehension in the auditory and visual modalities, and mainly the processing of meaning by the human brain, i.e., semantic access. Since he started his career at Bangor University in 2000, Professor Thierry has investigated a range of themes, such as verbal/non-verbal dissociations, visual object recognition, colour perception, functional cerebral asymmetry, language-emotion interactions, language development, developmental dyslexia, and bilingualism. Since 2005, Prof. Thierry’s has received funding form the BBSRC , the ESRC , the AHRC , the European Research Council, and the British Academy to investigate the integration of meaning in infants and adults at lexical, syntactic, and conceptual levels, using behavioural measurements, event-related brain potentials eye-tracking and functional neuroimaging, looking at differences between sensory modalities, different languages in bilinguals, and coding system (verbal / nonverbal). Prof. Thierry’s core research question is how the human brain crystallises knowledge and builds up a meaningful representation of the world around it. He now focuses on linguistic relativity and the philosophical question of mental freedom.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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