Article Summary: “Semantic and Letter Fluency in Spanish-English Bilinguals” by Gollan T., Montoya R. and Werner G. (2002)


In this article researchers posed the question: How does cross linguistic interference affect the performance of bilinguals in a verbal fluency task?. The verbal fluency task is a behavioral measure, during this task participants are asked to produce as many words as possible within a semantic or phonemic category in a specific language (e.g. Fruits and vegetable, letter F). Participants usually have about sixty seconds per category.

They made the following predictions:

  1. Bilinguals would produce lower scores relative to monolinguals in the EN only trials
  2. Bilinguals would produce higher scores relative to monolinguals in both-languages conditions (especially in the semantic categories.


Thirty college aged Spanish-English bilinguals (three Spanish dominants, twenty-seven either balanced or English dominant) and 30 college ages English Monolinguals.


Material, Procedure, and Scoring 

For this study they used twelve semantic categories, ten phonemic categories, and two proper names category.  For both the phonemic and semantic category participants were instructed to produce as many items as possible without proper names and items with the same word stem. The order of administration was counterbalanced, half of the semantic and half of the letter categories were randomly assigned to one of the two groups. Each one of the participants were randomly assigned to complete either group A first and group B second and vice versa. Group A consisted of contained the semantic categories animals, musical instruments, fruits, occupations that require an advanced degree, countries, and things that have wheels; the letter categories D, A, S, F, and L; and the proper names category M. Group B contained the semantic categories sports, vegetables, clothing, countries in Europe, college majors, and colors; the letter categories C, E, M, R, and P; and the proper name category L.


Their was in interactions between subject and category type that confirmed bilinguals performed poorly in comparison to monolinguals. There was a main effect of subject type and the interaction with category type that suggests there was a weak S-to-P connection for bilinguals due to reduced language connections. Twenty bilinguals had an average score in the semantic categories that was one standard deviation below average for monolinguals. Older adults produced fewer responses in the semantic task for the categories of Animals and Fruits (group A). These results are consistent with Rosseli (2000)


Bilinguals produced less responses in the English verbal fluency. These results cannot be attributed to the weak English dominance or the order of the task. There was an improvement in bilingual performance when bilinguals had little to no consequence for producing responses in either languages. It is not clear what the relationship between concrete and abstract words is with the task. Not to mention, that bilinguals produced fewer correct responses in the semantic categories in both language conditions.


Across both groups, the average score was greater in the semantic categories than in the phonemic categories. In an article written by Shao E. (2014), researchers propose that this could potentially be because items in the semantic categories are more readily accessible than the phonemic category.  I would recommend this article if you’re interested in bilingual performance in a word association task or if you’re interested in understanding the semantic-phonemic network differences and similarities between bilinguals-monolinguals.


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