Individual differences in the ability to resolve translation ambiguity across languages

Erica B. Michael, Natasha Tokowicz, Tamar Degani, Courtney J. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We investigated whether individual differences in working memory (WM) span and the ability to ignore task-irrelevant information were related to the ability to resolve translation ambiguity, which occurs when a word has multiple translations. Native English speakers who were intermediate learners of Spanish translated translation-ambiguous (multiple translation) and translation- unambiguous (single translation) words. As in previous studies, translation-ambiguous words were translated less accurately than translation-unambiguous words. Individuals better able to ignore task-irrelevant information translated words more accurately, but only for translation- unambiguous words. The best overall translation performance was for individuals with both higher WM span and better ability to ignore task-irrelevant information; higher WM span was a disadvantage for individuals more susceptible to task-irrelevant information. These results suggest that higher WM span and ability to ignore task-irrelevant information contribute to better L2 word learning, but greater word knowledge is problematic if individuals are not able to control the activation generated from multiple translation alternatives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-97
Number of pages19
JournalVigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Bilingual language processing
  • Individual differences
  • Stroop
  • Translation ambiguity
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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