What causes tip-of-the-tongue moments

Being bilingual is a tongue-twister, but why?

Tip-of-the-tongue moments – when the word you are looking for suddenly disappears from your mind – are more common in people who are bilingual, says New Scientist.

One explanation is similar words competing for the brain’s attention. Alternatively, tip-of-the-tongue moments may occur when the brain struggles to retrieve words we rarely use.

Jennie Pyers, a psychologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts tested a group of 11 English-Spanish bilinguals, 22 English-sign language bilinguals and 22 English-only speakers by showing them a range of objects obscure enough to trigger tip-of-the-tongue moments, such as axes, weathervanes and gyroscopes.

Monolinguals had fewer tip-of-the-tongue experiences – about 7 words versus 12 in bilinguals.

But Spanish-English bilinguals had a similar number of tip-of-the-tongue experiences to English-sign language bilinguals, suggesting that this is not about similar words competing for attention.

Pyers concluded that these moments are more likely to be about trying to recall rarely used words.

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