Abstract

Bilinguals have distinct linguistic experiences relative to monolinguals, stemming from interactions with the environment and the individuals therein. Theories of language control hypothesize that these experiences play a role in adapting the neurocognitive systems responsible for control. Here we posit a potential mechanism for these adaptations, namely that bilinguals face additional language-related uncertainties on top of other ambiguities that regularly occur in language, such as lexical and syntactic competition. When faced with uncertainty in the environment, people adapt internal representations to lessen these uncertainties, which can aid in executive control and decision-making.

We overview a cognitive framework on uncertainty, which we extend to language and bilingualism. We then review two “case studies,” assessing language-related uncertainty for bilingual contexts using language entropy and network scientific approaches. Overall, we find that there is substantial individual variability in the extent to which people experience language-related uncertainties in their environments, but also regularity across some contexts. This information, in turn, predicts cognitive adaptations associated with language fluency and engagement in proactive cognitive control strategies. These findings suggest that bilinguals adapt to the cumulative language-related uncertainties in the environment.

We conclude by suggesting avenues for future research and links with other research domains. Ultimately, a focus on uncertainty will help bridge traditionally separate scientific domains, such as language processing, bilingualism, and decision-making.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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