Edward Willett

It’s on the tip of my tongue…


How often has this happened to you?

“So I was talking to…to…oh, you know, that guy, the one in the head office, big hair, bad teeth, only listens to Perry Como records…geez, why can’t I remember his name? It’s on the tip of my tongue!”

It’s a common phenomenon, and it’s not just people’s names. Sometimes you can’t think of the name of a place, or a food, or a car, or…just about anything. You can feel that the information is in your head, but you can’t shape it into a word.

It may be a well-known phenomenon, but it isn’t well-understood. However, new research may have shed a little light on the mechanism involved.

One leading explanation for tip-of-the-tongue torment is that when we’re trying to think of a specific word, some other, similar-sounding word pops up in the brain instead and blocks our ability to access the correct one. This is called “phonological blocking,” and it was that idea that the new research was designed to test.

Interestingly, though, the researchers didn’t turn to people who speak with their tongues, but people who speak with their hands: fluent speakers of American Sign Language.

Karen Emmorey, director of the Laboratory for Language & Cognitive Neuroscience at San Diego State University, is interested in the similarities and differences between signed language and spoken language. Other of her recent research has shown, for example, that when a gesture is used for sign language, a different part of the brain is activated than when that same gestture is used for pantomime: in other words, the brain distinguishes between a gesture that has linguistic meaning and a gesture that’s just a gesture.

Emmorey knew previous research has shown that bilingual people have more tip-of-the-tongue moments than unilingual people do. The phonological-blocking explanation of this would be that those with two languages in their heads have twice as many words to get in the way of other similar-sounding words.

She reasoned that if that explanation were correct, then the general rule that bilingual people have more tip-of-the-tongue moments shouldn’t hold true for those who were bilingual in both English and sign language, because obviously half the words in one language not only don’t sound the same as the words in English, they don’t make a sound at all!

In sign language, tip-of-the-tongue moments are called tip-of-the-finger moments. Just like tip-of-the-tongues, tip-of-the-fingers occur spontaneously, often involve proper names, and frequently include partial access to the word. In speakers, this frequently means you can remember the first sound of the word but not the rest of it. In signers, that may mean they can remember the sign’s hand shape, location and orientation, but not its movement.

Unfortunately for the phonological-blocking contingent, Emmorey discovered that those bilingual in English and ASL had tip-of-the-tongue…or, in the one case, tip-of-the-finger….incidents pretty much as often as people bilingual in English and Spanish.

That would seem to indicate that phonological blocking is not the mechanism underpinning tip-of-the-tongue moments at all.

If you’re going to throw out one explanation, you need to suggest another one, and Emmorey has done so. She believes tip-of-the-tongue/tip-of-the-finger moments are due to forgetfulness, brought about by infrequency of use. In other words, the less often you use a word, the harder it is for your brain to come up with it when needed, she suspects.

That would explain why all bilinguals, whether they use two spoken languages or one spoken and one unspoken, have those moments more often: all the words they know are used less frequently than the words known by someone who only speaks one language.

It’s just a possible explanation at this point, of course. To see if it holds water, there’ll have be additional…um…

Oh, you know, starts with “r,” that thing scientists do in laboratories, involves experiments…

Research! That’s it.

Now why couldn’t I remember that?

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