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"Tip-of-the-Tongue" Syndrome: What It Reveals About Language

by Paul Martin

“Who’s the actress who played Buffy?” I ask. “You know, the short one, with blonde hair and green eyes. No, no, it’s not Sarah Jessica Parker; I’m talking about the vampire - Buffy! Sarah Margaret Grant?...No...This is making me crazy! Her name is on the tip of my tongue!” (For readers who are scratching their heads along with me, the actress in question is Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

“It’s on the tip of my tongue!”

We’ve all experienced it: we can imagine a particular person or a particular word, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t recall the name of that person or thing. Often times, we can remember very specific information about the person or object in question - I, for example, could envision Sarah Michelle Gellar’s hair and eye color - but for some reason, we just can’t produce the word.

In fact, these tip-of-the-tongue states are so thoroughly researched in linguistics and psychology literature that they even have their own acronym (TOT). But what exactly are these tip-of-the-tongue states? Why do they happen, and what do they tell us about how our brains process language?

Why tip-of-the-tongue states happen

When we think about learning words, it seems intuitive and logical that we store the word and its meaning in the same place in our brain. For example, the word dog should come in the same memory package as its meaning - a four-legged furry animal that’s a common household pet. However, tip-of-the-tongue states suggest that this isn’t the case - instead, words and their meanings are stored in quite different places in the brain.

A very influential model of memory and word processing comes from Levelt (1999), who suggests that we retrieve and produce words in stages - first, we conjure up the meaning, and only later do we recall the word associated with it. In other words, the brain is a mess: we store meanings in one place, and words in another! Usually, the link between meaning and form is clear, but sometimes - especially with uncommon names and words - our brain gets confused, and can’t find the word attached to a particular meaning. When this happens, we fall into a tip-of-the-tongue state.

In this way, our brains are like a cluttered desk. We know that our important tax forms are in there somewhere, we just can’t remember where we left them!

Tip-of-the-tongue states and bilingualism

Interestingly, researchers have found that bilinguals experience more tip-of-the-tongue states than monolinguals, especially with their less-dominant language. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising: not only do bilinguals have to memorize twice as many words as monolinguals, but they presumably use each of these words less frequently than monolinguals, given that they split their vocabulary into two languages. Therefore, continuing with our metaphor of a cluttered desk, bilinguals have twice as many documents in the same amount of space - no wonder it’s sometimes harder to find the right form!

Still, the increased incidence of tip-of-the-tongue states is a small price to pay for the vast advantages that bilingualism confers. Specifically, bilinguals have been shown to have increased memory capacity, enhanced problem-solving skills, and even reduced risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

So the next time that a word is right on the tip of your tongue, don’t fret. Your brain is doing its best to organize itself - a formidable task, given that the average person knows between 35,000 - 60,000 words (and twice that for bilinguals!). With such an enormous vocabulary, perhaps what’s truly most amazing is that we don’t experience tip-of-the-tongue states more often!

About the writer

Paul works for Language Trainers, a language teaching service for individuals and professionals. Language Trainers offers several free language-learning resources, such as foreign language film reviews. Visit their Facebook page or email Paul at paul@languagetrainers.com for more information.

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