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It’s not Translation, They Just Speak!

The minds of bilingual children are often likened to the workings of an intricate machine, constantly processing and outputting information. A common misconception is that these young polyglots must engage in a ceaseless act of translation, converting thoughts and expressions from one language into the other. This image, while evocative, does not quite capture the nuanced reality of bilingual cognition. The assumption rests on an oversimplified understanding of how language operates in the brain and how bilinguals use and switch between their languages.

In practice, proficient bilinguals, including children, tend to use their languages without conscious translation. They access words, phrases, and concepts in the language in which they are communicating, often without the need to mentally refer to their other language. This ability is especially pronounced in children raised bilingually from an early age. Their brains develop two separate, yet interconnected linguistic systems. As they mature, they learn to navigate these systems with astonishing agility, not so much translating as simply thinking and speaking in the language that is prompted by context, audience, or emotion.

The notion of non-stop translation also misrepresents the cognitive processes involved in language comprehension and production. When bilingual children listen to or engage in conversation, their brains are not bogged down by the labor of translation. Instead, research suggests they activate both languages to varying degrees, even when using just one. Their brains are adept at selecting the appropriate linguistic system for the situation at hand while suppressing the other to avoid interference, a phenomenon known as inhibitory control. This seamless toggling between languages is more akin to a well-conducted symphony than a clunky, one-for-one translation. It is a dynamic process that refines itself with development and practice.

The translation model also fails to consider the factor of language dominance. Bilingual children often have a dominant language — the one they are more proficient in or use more frequently. In such cases, the need for constant translation is reduced as they lean more heavily on their dominant language for constructing their internal narrative or understanding the world around them. The less dominant language might require more effort and occasionally conscious translation, but this is not the default mode of operation. Instead, it is a skill that bilingual children can employ when necessary, such as when learning new vocabulary or when they come across a concept in one language that they have not yet encountered in the other.

Moreover, constant translation would not account for the nuances and unique expressions inherent in each language, which may not have direct counterparts in the other. Bilingual children learn early on that some ideas are best expressed in one language and might not easily transfer to the other. This understanding is part of what shapes their bilingual identity and language competence. They are often able to appreciate the cultural and contextual subtleties that each language encompasses, and rather than translating, they choose expressions that align best with their intentions and the nuances of each language.

In essence, the inner workings of a bilingual child's mind are far more complex than the simplistic act of translation. The process of thinking, understanding, and speaking in two languages is interwoven with cognitive mechanisms that enable children to navigate their bilingualism with remarkable proficiency. Rather than hindering communication, this dual-language framework enriches it, allowing bilingual children to convey thoughts and ideas with a depth and flexibility that is the hallmark of their unique linguistic capability.


✦Green, D. W. (1998). Mental control of the bilingual lexico-semantic system. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1(2), 67-81.

✦Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Harvard University Press.

✦Kroll, J. F., Bobb, S. C., Misra, M., & Guo, T. (2008). Language selection in bilingual speech: Evidence for inhibitory processes. Acta Psychologica, 128(3), 416-430.

✦Pavlenko, A. (2005). Emotions and Multilingualism. Cambridge University Press.


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