More evidence that a switch is not (always) a switch: Binning bilinguals reveals dissociations between task and language switching

Dorit Segal, Alena Stasenko, Tamar H. Gollan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current study examined the cognitive mechanisms underlying task and language switching by comparing them with each other, and with flanker task performance, at multiple points of the response time distribution. Ninety-eight Spanish-English bilinguals completed cued language and color-shape switching tasks, and 2 versions of a nonlinguistic flanker task. Bilinguals responded more quickly and exhibited smaller mixing costs in the language task, but surprisingly exhibited larger switching costs than in the color-shape task. This language-task disadvantage was especially apparent in slower reaction times (RTs), because switching costs increased significantly through the slowest end of the RT distribution only in the language task (but not in the color-shape task). Although the flanker task resembled the language task to a greater extent than the color-shape task in some measures (e.g., flanker effects were largest in the slowest RT bins, like language switching costs), in other measures the 2 switching tasks resembled each other and the flanker task stood out as different (i.e., trial sequence effects and correlations between tasks in various cost measures). These results reveal that different measures of switching costs even in tasks with very similar designs, vary in the extent to which they measure switching ability, both between tasks, and even between different trials within the same task. Distributional analysis of RTs across tasks suggests that slow responses, particularly when switching between non-naturally competing responses, might not measure switching ability at all, and raises the possibility that smaller switching costs can even reflect reduced ability to juggle tasks in some cases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)501-519
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Mayra Murillo Beltran for help with data collection and Shota Momma for help with the Vincentile analysis. Tamar H. Gollan was supported by grants from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (011492) and the National Science Foundation (1457159). Dorit Segal was supported by the Israeli Science Foundation (ISF). Alena Stasenko was supported by the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Predoctoral Fellowship (F31) from the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NIH or ISF. There were no conflicts of interest in completing this research. Part of the data presented in this article (the color-shape and language switching comparison) were presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Psychological Association.


  • Bilingualism
  • Flanker effects
  • Language switching
  • Task-switching
  • Vincentile analysis


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