Switching languages, switching Palabras (words): An electrophysiological study of code switching

Eva M. Moreno, Kara D. Federmeier, Marta Kutas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Switching languages has often been associated with a processing cost. In this study, the authors used event-related potentials to compare switches between two languages with within-language lexical switches as bilinguals read for comprehension. Stimuli included English sentences and idioms ending either with the expected English words, their Spanish translations (code switches), or English synonyms (lexical switches). As expected, lexical switches specifically enhanced the N400 response in both context types. Code switches, by contrast, elicited an increased negativity over left fronto-central sites in the regular nonidiomatic sentences (250-450 ms) and a large posterior positivity (450-850 ms) in both context types. In addition, both lexical and code switches elicited a late frontal positivity (650-850 ms) relative to expected completions, especially in idioms. Analysis of the individual response patterns showed correlations with vocabulary skills in English and in Spanish. Overall, the electrophysiological data suggest that for some speakers in some contexts, the processing of a code switch may actually be less costly than the processing of an unexpected within-language item.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)188-207
Number of pages20
JournalBrain and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Bilinguals
  • Code switching
  • Event-related potentials
  • Idioms
  • Late positive complex
  • N400
  • Sentence processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Speech and Hearing


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